Youth find a forum where nothing is forbidden
While the internet helped bring the outside world to Cambodia, web logs are introducing a cast of tech-savvy young Khmers to an international audience.
“Blogging has introduced a cultural revolution in Cambodia – people speaking freely. Until now there was no other medium to do this so publicly,” says Norbert Klein, a a Phnom Penh-based German who brought the internet to Cambodia in 1994.
“This is a self-growing movement. They don’t need invitations,” he says.
Most “cloggers” – as Khmer bloggers call themselves – write about their lives, steering clear of politically sensitive topics.
Keo Kalyan, an 18-year-old Phnom Penh high school student who goes by the online name “Dee Dee,” was the poster-girl of the country’s first blogging event, the two-day Cloggers Summit last August in which foreign professional bloggers and 200 university students met to network and exchange ideas.
We must be allowed to write on topics such as the bribery of judges, freedom of religion ... corruption and illegal land grabbing.
Dee Dee writes one of the most popular blogs in the Kingdom, offering a window into the life of an educated, motivated Khmer teenager – or a “School Girl Genius! Khmer Cyberkid,” as her blog is titled.
While she has blogged about the city’s traffic problems and string of dengue epidemics, her posts tend to focus on student life.
“Well, nufin new about me, I am still DeeDee:) hehe... Still a funny, talkative one in class. Oh, btw, classes at college is just okay. I have been known to be a naughty, strict class monitor at my accounting school,” she wrote in a recent post.
Bad English aside, the expansion of blogging in Cambodia has been hampered by a more fundamental problem: low literacy rates, as well as limited internet penetration.
Blogging is currently a pastime of affluent, urban Khmers who usually write in English. Fewer than 0.3 percent of Cambodians have regular web access, compared to 13 percent of Thais and 22 percent of Vietnamese, according to the Internet World Statistics website.
Cambodia’s blogosphere did, however, get a slight boost from one of its pioneering members – King Father Norodom Sihanouk, who started writing on his website in 2002, earning himself a reputation as the Kingdom’s first blogger. He electrified audiences in 2004 when he voiced his support for gay marriage after watching TV footage of same-sex weddings in San Francisco.
Preetam Rai, Southeast Asian editor of blog forum Global Voices Online, says Cambodia’s blogs are becoming more diverse and sophisticated, if not polemical.
“More people are writing about more topics, more students are setting up blogs. More blogs in the local language are appearing,” Rai told the Post.
Vanak Thom’s pungent political commentary sets himself apart from the rest of the pack.
Vanak, 27, says when he first started a blog in 2005 he was afraid to be outspoken but later came to embrace his right to free speech.
“We must be allowed to write on topics such as the bribery of judges, freedom of religion ... corruption and illegal land grabbing.
“If there are issues that are affecting our interests, we must be able to address them freely,” he says.
“The majority of Khmer bloggers write about their everyday activities and avoid the issues that matter most for our country’s direction – politics and the country’s leadership. We still fear being persecuted for what we say about our leaders. For anything we say to offend them, we could be the next target for a roadside accident or shot at.”
Vanak notes that cloggers appear to be maturing and addressing more hot-button issues.
“I hope the trend continues and more of our bloggers write about what’s affecting them the most,” he says.
Ray Leos, dean and professor at Pannasastra University’s communications faculty, says blogging is a way of empowering Cambodia’s younger generation.
As citizens of a country heavily dependent on aid, young Cambodians are used to having technical experts tell them what to do, he says, and blogging helps break down the stereotype of the passive Cambodian.
Leos predicts a surge in blogging activity in the country as it is seen as one of the few avenues to express overt criticism.