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Digital Technology and the Two Cambodias: Have and Have Not

BY Anne Nelson | Wednesday, August 21 2013

The price of dissent (credit: Anne Nelson)

In May USAID and a group of private sector sponsors sponsored BarCamp Battambang, a two-day program in a provincial city in Cambodia.

Its website recorded that the event attracted some 700 participants; 70 percent from high schools and universities, and 30 percent from the private sector and civil society organizations.

It does not specify how many were from Cambodia and how many were from neighboring countries, but the program was undeniably Cambodia-centric. One of the ten most popular sessions was called "How to type Khmer Unicode on PC and Phone."

The organizers clearly took pains to keep the program costs low. Once transportation was covered, expenses for room, board and incidentals came to about $60. The program was a recent chapter in the long history of foreign aid in Cambodia.

The other Cambodia

It has not been a happy story. As Stanford's Joel Brinkley has pointed out, “Each year Prime Minister Hun Sen promises to reform. The donors nod and make their pledges — $1.1 billion [in 2010]. Then everyone goes home and nothing changes. In the following months, officials dip into the foreign aid accounts and build themselves mansions the size of small hotels, while 40 percent of Cambodia’s children grow up stunted for lack of nutrition during infancy.

Hun Sen has held power for 34 years, making his regime the longest-lived dictatorship extant in the world today. He is currently fighting a contested election, but there is no sign he plans to step down. In the meantime, human rights conditions and the plight of the poor only grow worse.

Today’s Cambodia is two countries. The official and international zones of Phnom Penh are modern and luxurious (a glass-and-steel high-rise development is underway on the banks of the Mekong), with broadband services that surpass some outer boroughs of New York.

The other Cambodia lies in the swamps and shantytowns of Phnom Penh and beyond, removed from the tourist zone. The country’s burgeoning real estate development has come at a terrible price for Cambodia’s poor. The country has never had a tradition of legal land titles; Hun Sen’s government and cronies have peremptorily seized vast tracts of land, evicting long-term residents at will.

How do these realities relate to media? As of this year, 74 percent of Cambodians don't have electricity (one of the lowest access rates in the world), much less computers and WiFi. Close to 95 percent of Cambodian villages lack schools that go beyond 6th grade. Without electricity and widespread functional literacy, Cambodia’s population overwhelmingly relies on broadcasting, voice, and personal communications for their news.

So who shows up for bar camps? Cambodia’s per capita income topped out at $671 last year; teacher’s salaries range from $20-50 a month. So the living expenses for the bar camp would be the equivalent of asking U.S. high school students to pony up at least $2,500 for a weekend course. Even with travel subsidies, the participants need computers, smart phones, and connections to benefit from the course. We know which high school students can shell out that kind of money — and which ones can’t.

There is no doubt that the Cambodian media is in dire need of help. The regime dominates much of the television, radio, and print markets. It has exerted sweeping restrictions on content at will, most recently in the lead-up to July elections, when the government banned all foreign radio content for five days before and including election day. This is exactly the kind of censorship that could be challenged by digital media — but Internet penetration in Cambodia stood at only 3.1 percent of the population in 2012.

Phnom Penh newsstand (credit: Anne Nelson)

Intriguingly, the most effective challenge to the government’s control of information comes from two excellent English-language newspapers, The Phnom Penh Post and the Cambodia Daily, whose reporting often trickles down to the Khmer-speaking majority.

Delayed development, stifled dissent

What does this mean in development terms? In Cambodia — as in many other developing countries — most of the aid dollars spent on digital media benefit a tiny elite population (which, in many cases, has obtained its riches by robbing fellow countrymen blind). Even mobile phones, which have been praised as a magic bullet, are problematic: they are overwhelmingly dumb phones, not smart phones, rendering many projects involving apps and Twitter out of reach to most of the population.

Africa is demonstrating that texting can be a powerful tool for development — but in Cambodia, as in many South and Southeast Asian countries, texting in the national script lies somewhere between difficult and impossible. The minority of Cambodians who text tend to do so in Khmer, spelled out phonetically in Roman letters. This limits the function, first, to the privileged half of the country’s population that is literate, and beyond that, to the tiny percentage that has mastered the written elements of a Western language.

Much of the international attention to digital media in Southeast Asia has been directed towards government censorship, and this attention has driven funding. There is certainly plenty to worry about; there is every sign that the governments in the region have gone on the offensive. In June the Wall Street Journal reported a wave of new measures, as both democratic and autocratic states rushed to assert control. Singapore imposed new controls on online news media. Malaysia passed a law last year that makes Internet intermediaries such as online editors and owners of WiFi connections legally liable for problematic content on their platforms.

Cambodia proposed anti-cybercrime legislation could be used against government critics, then, as the case has been with similar laws in the Philippines. New laws aren’t always necessary. In Thailand, Prime Minister Yingluck Shanwatra used the annual meeting of the World Association of Newspapers to remind journalists that “Freedom without responsibility can sometimes lead to confusion, misunderstanding and even turmoil.” In Thailand, “responsibility” can be a code word for self-censorship. This includes upholding Section 112 of the Criminal Code, which prohibits criticism of the King, in any media.

Repressive governments can also be proactive. This was demonstrated on June 9 at a mass rally in Phnom Penh, to protest remarks allegedly made by opposition candidate Kem Sokha. The government accused Kem of denying the Khmer Rouge genocide. Kem rejected the accusation, responding that his remarks had been distorted and taken wildly out-of-context.

But the government-led demonstrations against him proceeded as a bizarre twist on past popular demonstrations. On the squares where the crowds assembled, bathroom facilities and sandwiches were already waiting, along with preprinted signs in both Khmer and English. The crowd brought out a battery of cell phones and digital cameras to record the speakers, and presumably to post their results on government-sanctioned social media.

Dictator Hun Sen has taken to Facebook (where he enjoys over 79,000 “likes”). Hun Sen uses his Facebook page as a platform to feud with exiled opposition candidate Sam Rainsy (who has over 212,000 “likes,” perhaps as a benefit of exile). Neither has a credible Twitter feed — yet.

"What are Google Maps?"

The use of digital and social media in the political sphere is likely to be manipulated by elites in such countries for some time to come. That said, there have been some international development projects that hold special promise for broader populations. One is the well-received Khmer keyboard app that was recently released for Androids through a joint initiative from Google and the USAID-funded SPICE Institute. For the moment, this will primarily be helpful to Cambodia’s smart phone minority. In May Google, to its credit, released a Khmer font (with truly “readable and beautiful rendering in text in Khmer script”) designed by Danh Hong, who is also involved with online computer training in Khmer. Such programs will be game-changers in the future, as technology grows cheaper and broader populations gain access to the education and the infrastructure to use it. With luck, programs such as BarCampBattambang may prepare a first wave of local developers to move it forward in the future.

But in the midst of such repression and misery, it would be wrong to abandon the here-and-now. Last June, on a brief visit to Cambodia, I was invited to give an introduction to the concept of crisis mapping to radio journalists from leading regional stations. Colleagues from Australia’s AusAid development agency, which has long-standing programs in Cambodia, were holding a workshop on disaster communications to improve their response to the devastating annual floods. Confidently, I displayed my slides illustrating how the Nairobi-based mapping platform Ushahidi was deployed in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti. “The project used reports from text messages, applied to the same principle as Google Maps,” I explained.

Click here for pictures of government-sponsored rally against opposition party.

The journalists, equipped with decent WiFi, computers and smart phones, looked at me blankly. “What are Google Maps?” they asked.

My introduction quickly morphed from crisis mapping to maps. I showed them how to get directions on Google Maps, and let them know that they could see real-time weather conditions on Google Earth Layers. Language was a barrier, so I drafted a quick-and-dirty guide to Google Maps that was translated into Khmer on the spot.

But to be honest, only a few of the younger ones followed up for the hands-on demonstration. The rest of them had other concerns. When the monsoons hit, the government radio stations that serve most of the country’s population must base their reporting on government press releases — sometimes hand-delivered in a two-hour drive from the capital. In the meantime, lives can be lost through flash flooding and cobra bites. My Australian colleagues understood that what the Cambodians most needed was new ways to interact with government officials, to get permission, create protocols, and acquire skills to deliver real-time news without fear of reprisal. The lesson was powerful. Let the bar camps continue – they are seeding the future. But in countries where you have to wait for the government to tell you it’s raining, you can’t forget the basics.

Anne Nelson teaches "New Media and Development Communication" at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs, (SIPA). Her research can be found at
Follow her on Twitter: @anelsona

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