Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Blogs Taking Off in Cambodia

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- Like many young Cambodians just now getting used to the idea of surfing the web, Mean Lux only recently heard about blogs. But his work traveling this country's back roads may soon bring a rush of Cambodians to the blogosphere.

As part of a project launched by a pro-democracy nonprofit, Mean spent most of June in dusty provincial capitals showing high-school and university students how to publish an online diary.

In an interview last week, he said the most common question was whether people in other countries could read blogs from Cambodia. He said they could.

"They also asked, 'How will people know where my blog is?' I said, 'How will they know what your phone number is? It is the same way,'" he said.

In one town, Mean wasn't able to get a reliable connection to the internet, which is not surprising considering that until two years ago, net access in Cambodia was only available in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, a tourist destination in the north. (The International Telecommunication Union estimated that only 25 in 10,000 Cambodians were net users in 2003, one of the lowest internet-penetration rates in Asia.)

Nonetheless, about a dozen students who attended Mean's training sessions were inspired to create their own English-language blogs after the three-hour workshop.

One of those blogs, called Youth Vision, contains five brief postings written in rough English. Another, entitled Cambodian Children, laments the fact that many Cambodian children can't go to school because their families are too poor, or because they do not live near a school or have access to transportation.

Nearly all of the blogs are heavy on photos. And much like Cambodia's stale, state-run television news, many of the images are unremarkable group photos from official-looking meetings and training sessions.

For example, a blog entitled Battambang Network reports on a workshop held at a university in Battambang, a provincial capital near the Thai border.

"Fifty-five Youth Network members attend(ed) the meeting, including 10 monks," the post said.

Other blogs keep it light, looking at the new venue as a way to network with others: "What are you doing? How are you?... If you have free time, can you join with us?" asks the blogger behind sonn-veasna, in what is a typical first post for many of the trainees.

Despite the modest beginnings, the local office of the International Republican Institute, or IRI, which sponsored the project, is excited about the potential for Cambodian blogs to generate more political dialogue.

"There's a growing interest. It's not overwhelming, but it's growing," said Alex Sutton, the IRI's resident program director.

Officials from IRI came up with the idea for the training workshops after hearing of the website of Cambodia's retired King Norodom Sihanouk.

Sihanouk, a revered figure in Cambodia and a political force for the last 60 years, has published his scanned-in, handwritten scribblings online since 2002. He often comments, usually in French, in the margins of local news articles and hasn't hesitated to criticize Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and his government. His writings have prompted sharp responses from Hun Sen in public speeches.

"The reality is that internet access is limited," Sutton said last week. "But the value of blogs is not in who is doing it. It is the power of how much conversation it then generates face to face, or on radio or television. It's the buzz they create."

Blogs in Khmer, the official language of Cambodia, would create even more of a buzz. At least that's the thinking of the coordinator of a group planning to unveil Khmer-language blog software in the next month.

"Our purpose is to foster and facilitate communication for democracy. Blogging fits really well into that," said Javier Sola, coordinator of Open Forum of Cambodia's Khmer Software Initiative.

Cambodia has a free press law, implemented in the 1990s in the aftermath of its 1993 U.N.-sponsored election. But the government has authoritarian tendencies, and it's common for politicians to sue newspapers -- as well as other politicians -- for defamation.

But young people make up most of the country's population (the median age in Cambodia was under 20 in 2004), and one of the more inspiring sights in Phnom Penh is the rows of English-language schools behind the royal palace, where high-school and university students flock for private lessons in the afternoon and evening. Studying computers is also popular, and Cambodian youth enthusiastically take to new technologies, such as text messaging, as soon as they're introduced.

Harvard University's Global Voices Online, which recently predicted that the Cambodian blogosphere was "ready to take off," lists more than 20 blogs produced by Cambodians, not counting expatriates and Cambodians living abroad.

Bun Tharum, an Open Forum employee who has been blogging since June 2004, has ventured beyond his usual personal observations of life around Phnom Penh in recent weeks. He posted parts of a local news article on government corruption and about the problem of domestic violence.

Bun Tharum writes his twice-a-week postings at internet cafes on weekends, or at the office during the week. Whether he will start writing serious criticisms of the government is still in question.

"Oh, I'm afraid to. But maybe I'll start later," he said. "As more people learn to blog, then I think the government will try to shut them down."

Mean, who conducted the provincial trainings, recently started his own blog and has invited his friends to post as well.

Photos of his workshops make up most of the entries. In one post, he calls the Battambang training, in which several blogs were created, "a good start."

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