Cambodian bloggers log on, tap into a cultural revolution
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia - A Cambodian blogger asked recently whether former King Norodom Sihanouk should be considered the country's founding father of blogging.
He got no definitive answer. Cambodian blog watchers say the 84-year-old monarch might not have known he was blogging when he unveiled his website, updated daily by his staff since 2002 with his views on national affairs, correspondence with his admirers, and news about his film- making hobby.
But it is clear that young, tech-savvy Cambodians are joining Sihanouk in embracing blogs. The trend is changing their lives and their communication with people abroad - even as electricity remains an unreachable dream for most households in this poverty-ridden nation of 14 million.
"This is a kind of cultural revolution now happening here in terms of self-expression," said Norbert Klein, a longtime resident from Germany who is considered the person who introduced e-mail to Cambodia, through a dial-up connection in 1994. "It is completely a new era in Cambodian life."
Cambodians with the skills and the means to blog are discovering a wider world and using the personal online journals to show off their personalities and views about the issues facing their country, from corruption to food safety.
"Blogging transforms the way we communicate and share information," said Ly Borin, 25, a student blogger.
To his surprise, a recent blog post of his on poor food safety in Cambodia drew a comment from an international traveler. He said interaction with a stranger living perhaps half a world away was unimaginable in Cambodia a few years ago.
Cambodia became one of the most isolated countries in the world during the late 1970s, when the communist Khmer Rouge regime was in power and cut off virtually all links with the outside world as it applied radical policies that led to the death of 1.7 million people. The Khmer Rouge regime was ousted in 1979, but the country is still struggling to rebuild. Less than one-third of 1 percent of Cambodians have regular Internet access.
If the Internet opened a path for news from outside Cambodia, blogging is turning the path into a two-way street.
"Having a blog brings me up to date with technology," said Keo Kalyan, 17, a student whose blog name is "DeeDee, School Girl Genius! Khmer-Cyberkid." "I can do social networking and contact other bloggers" around the world, Keo Kalyan said.
She and three peers organized the first-ever Cambodian Bloggers Summit - the "Cloggers Summit" to the cognoscenti. Foreign professional bloggers and 200 university students took part in the two-day meeting in Cambodia last month to trade ideas.
Her team also has conducted 14 workshops for 1,700 students to share their knowledge about digital technology.
Raymond Leos, an American professor of communications and media arts at a Phnom Penh university, said Sihanouk showed his countrymen blogging's potential.
After seeing TV images of same-sex weddings in San Francisco in 2004, Sihanouk posted a statement expressing his support for gay marriage. When a foreigner allegedly wrote him an e-mail criticizing his stance on the subject, Sihanouk shot back on his website, saying "I thank you for insulting me," but "I am not gay."
One politically conscious blogger rapped Prime Minister Hun Sen's government over chronic corruption.
"I feel so shameful of our Prime Minister Hun Sen. We are begging the world for money," Vanak Thom wrote on his "Blog By Khmer."
Human Rights Watch criticizes the Cambodian government's treatment of dissent, but bloggers are able to express at least some overt criticism. And there is no official censorship.
Blogs are not yet relevant to most Cambodians. The blogs are generally in English, a language that is becoming more popular among the new generation than French, which is the legacy of colonial times. Yet, English is spoken and read by only a tiny fraction of the country's population.
Cambodia's Internet penetration also is among the lowest in the world, in part because of high electricity and network connection costs. An hour of access at an Internet cafe costs about 50 cents, but 35 percent of Cambodians make less than the poverty-level income of 45 cents a day.