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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Changing Cambodia's attitudes to computers and e-government

Changing Cambodia's attitudes to computers and e-government

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090331_10ict.jpg

Phu Leewood, the secretary general of the National Information

Communications Technology Development agency (NIDA), talks to Brendan

Brady about the challenges the country faces in developing, and using,

a robust information network.

Photo by: BRENDAN BRADY

Phu Leewood has been involved in Cambodia’s communications infrastructure since 1993.

How did you come to be involved in development of the ICT sector in Cambodia?

I left Cambodia in 1979, ended up in a refugee camp in Thailand and then went to Seattle in the United States. I came back to Cambodia in 1993 after the UNTAC elections and worked as an adviser for the Ministry of Commerce. Back then, people did not have literacy with computers so I provided computer training to people working at the ministry. My background was in computer science. I studied at Spokane University in Washington.

What was the ICT situation when you returned?

In 1979 people were just coming back to Phnom Penh to find their relatives. It was about survival. When I came to Cambodia in 1993, there were no computer skills. The Ministry of Commerce back then had 4,000 employees. I said, we don't need 4,000 people; we need maybe 40. What we need is a network connecting the department.  

When did the government start investing in this network?

After the formation of the National Information and Communication Technology Development Authority, NIDA, in 2000 we started to implement IT development. In 2001, we implemented the GAIS [Government Administrative Information System]  project, which included the import of about 1000 PCs for government offices.

There was resistance with government staff - people were afraid computers would take over their jobs. We had to change a lot of mindsets. We had to explain the computer will not take away your job, it will help you do your job better.

For the new generation, it's easier. But for the legacy workforce, we've had problems. For the older people, it is difficult to learn this new system.

What is the purpose of e-government?

People can get information about the government online. This information was not readily available in '93. Now, it's at your fingertips: information about each ministry and their contact numbers. But it's true more must be done by ministries in the future to put more information online. There is also a system that includes vehicle and real estate registration for revenue collection purposes. Before there was no way to track stolen vehicles. But now police on the street can radio a plate number back to an office to get information on who is the owner. There also have been problems with fraud of land titles. Once all that information is logged into a computer, it will solve a lot of problems.

Can e-government help reduce corruption?

Once information is online, everyone can know that information, so it's harder to take advantage of someone.

When information is not available, it is easier for people to make unreasonable demands.

How is internet changing lives of Cambodians?

Penetration of the internet is really affecting the lives of younger people. Now they have information from around the globe at their fingertips. It is changing education by offering education services online. In terms of information, youth are updated on world news.

Providing internet services in rural areas is very expensive but necessary. What is the government's strategy here?

This will be the burden of the government. We are planning on having connections to all schools, and from schools they will provide a telephone-based connection to the local area. This can happen after we connect rural government offices to the backbone.

What progress has been made on connecting rural government to the backbone?

Right now we have a connection for the central government only. The connection to the provincial offices will come soon. Some provincial offices have internet, but most do not. The moment we connect the backbone onto the access network of provincial offices, then they will be online and connected to the central government information sharing system. This should happen within the year.

All the main government offices within a province are connected to each other, but they need to be connected to the backbone. Once we achieve that, all provinces will be online and their systems will be connected and they will be connected to the central government. We have completed the access networks; it is now a matter of connecting them to the backbone.

We created three data centres - one in Phnom Penh, one in Siem Reap and one in Sihanoukville - and these data centres will act as a hub for surrounding provinces.

The growth of internet tends to push the limits of a society's attitudes towards acceptable media images. Cambodia has recently experienced tension over government-directed blocks of the reahu.com website.

This is quite a difficult issue because the technology is moving faster than the law. The technology is moving across boundaries faster than the law can address. This is a blurred line between freedom of information and cultural preservation. This blurred line will be defined; the internet law will be introduced soon.

For me, I was educated in the US, this is freedom of information, this is the expression of the artist. But what's attractive advertisement in the US may be pornography in another country.  

Who will decide on content and what rules will be used?

We are working on it now. NIDA will be the sole agency in drafting this law. If you look at existing practice in the US, there is a blurred line as well: What is the line between attractive advertising and pornography?

The internet law will be based on other laws, as well. The criminal code needs to be passed first to define punishment under the internet law. We are working on the internet law now. We've been working on it for a few years, and we will have it soon after the Criminal Code passes. 

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