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'Cloggers,' the King Father and online dissent

'Cloggers,' the King Father and online dissent

His Majesty Father Norodom Sihanouk started it. From the quietude of retirement he

became the first Khmer blogger when he began punctuating Cambodian public life with

regular website postings in 2002.

The retired King was enjoying a global revolution in online self-publishing that

has been likened to the invention of the printing press. Armed with easy-to-use software,

always-on connections and increasingly powerful mobile devices, bloggers, the theory

goes, have become active media players - enabling dissent, enhancing freedom of expression

and broadening democracy.

But despite the King Father's efforts, blogging developments in impoverished post-conflict

Cambodia have been modest.

Global Voices Online, a forum of blogs from the developing world, lists no more than

30 blogs produced by Cambodians, not counting expatriates and Cambodians living abroad,

but with 60 percent of the country's population under 25 and a rising urban middle

class, the site is predicting the Cambodian blogosphere is "ready to take off."

If that's the case then Mean Lux can in a large part be held responsible. Lux, 28,

became interested in blogging soon after it took off in Korea, Japan, and China and

is a pioneer of "clogging" - as Cambodian blogging is known. In fact, he

coined the term.

"I wanted to explore the technology and see how it could be used for the development

of young people and the country," he said. "It is very interesting how

blogging can change the political landscape. This technology gives some power to

the people."

In June 2005, after receiving funding from the NGO Open Institute, Lux traveled through

the provincial capitals and gave lessons on internet use and blogging. After the

success of these sessions, he joined with four other Khmer bloggers and formed the

Personal Information Technology Workshops (PITW).

With funding from a local internet-provider, the group approached universities and

offered free sessions to students. The workshops have proved hugely popular, with

tightly packed classrooms overflowing. "In Siem Reap we planned for 100 students

and we ended up with more than 300 and had to do two sessions," Lux said.

Since August 2006, the PITW volunteers have conducted sessions at 13 universities,

and have plans for another seven workshops. At some universities the sessions have

been incorporated into the standard IT program.

Lux reckons the group has exposed more than 2,000 students to blogging. "We

don't expect all of them to start blogging," he said. "Maybe only a few

will. But it's just about giving them the information and the skills and the confidence.

At the universities even the IT teachers don't know about blogs, so we're teaching

them as well."

Personal or Political

Keo Kalyan, or Dee Dee, a 17-year-old Phnom Penh high school student, is one of the

PITW volunteers. After starting out "clogging" in 2005, she now hosts one

of the Kingdom's more popular blogs.

"I wanted to have my own website to share my ideas and my point of view about

society and about what is happening and my life," she said. "It was also

a way to improve my writing."

Dee Dee's blog is a glimpse into the life of an educated, motivated Khmer teenager

- or a "School Girl Genius! Khmer-Cyberkid," as her blog is subtitled.

Recent posts include reflections on the dengue fever outbreak, musings on the capitals

city's traffic problems, and an account of a trip to Rattanakiri province. Her blog

has a regular audience of about 2,000 and has a high Google ranking.

"Mainly I post about good news and tell Cambodians about new things," she

said. "But also about how we can improve things and our society, like picking

up rubbish and not leaving it in the park. I wrote a piece about being a valuable

citizen and that got many comments."

But like her fellow PITW volunteers, Dee Dee steers clear of politics.

"I don't really post about political issues, mainly just about my life as a

high school student," she said.

The volunteers said most "cloggers" were aware of risks associated with

discussing sensitive issues and were mainly interested in telling their own stories

and opening up a dialogue with the world.

"People tend to talk about the personal and not the political," Hor Virak,

26, a PITW volunteer said. "We don't do anything about politics or our workshop

will be banned. But it depends on each person's motivation as to what they'll write


One blogger who is mixing the personal with the political is Vanak Thom. "Suppress

me no longer," he wrote on his site Blog by Khmer. "Allow me to freely

write for expressing my opinion and interests through this blog for the world to


Thom, who says he is from Svay Rieng province and lives in Phnom Penh, writes about

politics in the Kingdom and is critical of what he calls Cambodia's "current

one strongman rule government."

"When I first started blogging in 2005, I was very afraid of saying anything

offensive ... for fear of my life," he wrote. "But now I've come to realize

if I'm afraid to post anything I feel it's not right about my country's policy, then

my feeling would be suppressed."

Freedom of Expression

Currently Cambodia has no laws to regulate the internet. A draft law has been languishing

in the corridors of power since 2004, but passing that could take some time, meaning

that for now blogs devoted to politics such as Thom's, as well as dissident cartoonist

Ung Bun Heang's Sacrava Toons site and the popular KI Media site, are freely available.

As was the Global Witness report on illegal logging, banned by the government, but

easily downloaded from the UK-based environmental watchdog's web site.

Lux believes that to date the internet has not had enough impact for the government

to take restrictive measures.

"How quickly they adopt the law will depend on the influence bloggers have and

if they attack the government or not," Lux said.

"But the law will not be restrictive like China. To get donor money we must

show the world we are a democracy."

"Currently the media law is 'perfect' and gives freedom of expression, but the

government uses other means to monitor and control the media."

Minister of Information and government spokesperson Khieu Kanarith refused to comment

to the Post about internet-related issues, but some advocates believe the web will

be integral to the development of Cambodia's nascent democracy - and it's merely

a matter of time before the government will be forced to address it.

"Through the internet we can get around the old media - TV, radio, newspapers

-which are controlled," said Ou Virak, head of the Alliance for Freedom of Expression,

a coalition of 28 NGOs.

"The government is unlikely to place restrictions on the internet just yet as

penetration is low. But if usage can pick up as quickly as phone usage has then who

knows what might happen."

The development of Unicode - software that enables users to type easily in Khmer

- is opening up access to blogging for Cambodia's baby boom generation and may increase

internet use.

"With Unicode, even if they can't write in English they can still share their

story," said Be Chantra, 26, another PITW volunteer, who has been part of the

Open Institute's program to develop Khmer open source software (Khmer OS).

Khmerized versions of popular software, including web browsers and design-ware, are

now available for free from the Khmer OS site, and Unicode has been installed on

the latest version of Windows.

"There is now an agreement with the Ministry of Education to use Khmer OS software

in high schools from next year," Chantra said. "This is going to make blogging

more accessible to young Khmers."

Chantra uses Unicode on his blog Trajoke to tell jokes. "When people read my

blog I just want them to relax and laugh," he said. "If they are busy at

work they can flick to my blog and read a Khmer joke in Khmer."

But the growth of blogging is still constrained by access: internet penetration in

the Kingdom is one of the lowest in the region. Only a few high schools have computers,

and most universities do not have services freely available to students.

The arrival of wireless broadband, or WiMAX, in the country last year may increase

penetration. WiMax allows internet service providers to offer broadband internet

speeds without needing to install telecommunications infrastructure, meaning the

Kingdom can literally go wireless without first being wired.

Internet cafes are becoming ubiquitous in the capital and Siem Reap. But in the countryside,

where 85 percent of the population live, things are less wired-only 10 percent of

rural areas have access to electricity, let alone high-speed broadband.

But Lux believes that in time blogging will be as influential in Cambodia as it has

been in other parts of the world.

"It hasn't developed into a scene where people are discussing major issues like

in other countries," he said. "But I'm sure blogs will change the country.

If people talk about issues that effect them in life and in society they will start

a discussion and that opens up expression."


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