Around the World, Cambodians are Making Virtual Space for Themselves
Making a New Cambodia in Cyberspace
Battambang native Paul Puth, now residing in Canada, met his Cambodian wife in an Internet chat room designed specifically for Cambodians.
Kea Kunthea, a manager at Khmer Internet Development Services in Phnom Penh, educates herself about the latest software by using the World Wide Web and uses e-mail to keep in closer contact with her cousin in Australia.
Chamroeun Yin, a dancer based in the major US city of Philadelphia, listens daily to Khmer-language radio broadcasts downloaded from the Internet and posts information about Cambodian classical dance on his Web page.
Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia in Phnom Penh, puts information about Cambodia’s genocidal past on his website and uses e-mail to speed up his communication with other researchers.
Cambodians—here and abroad—are creating space for themselves in cyberspace filled with Khmer music, videos, personal ads, conversation, sex, education, shopping, news, politics and advertising. The Internet has allowed the creation of numerous places where Cambodians around the world can interact with each other and experience Khmer culture even when they are thousands of kilometers away from their home country or a long way away from fellow Cambodians.
“Cambodians in the developed countries like USA, Canada, Australia or European countries are catching on to the Internet hype,” said Paul Puth, who works as a freelance webpage designer and runs a non-profit organization called Cambodia Web that has operated an Internet chat room for Cambodians and a web ring linking websites with Cambodian content since 1996.
A web ring is a set of independent sites linked around a theme. Each member site gives the user a choice of going to the next site in the list or jumping around randomly.
“The major advantages are that Cambodians from across the globe can communicate with one another easily,” Paul Puth said of the Internet. “Cambodians are able to show to the world the beautiful Khmer culture through home pages on the Internet. Younger Cambodian generations who are living in a remote city with small Cambodian populations can still identify themselves with other Cambodians through the Internet….E-mail and [Internet chat sites] are communication tools that can help unite most of us who have left our homeland because of the civil war.”
The Internet was born in 1969 in the US Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency as ARPAnet, a means for very expensive computers to share information through networks. Until the early 1990s, the Internet was primarily the domain of the military and scientists. Computer prices dropped significantly in the West and new, easier-to-use software allowed anyone to send e-mail and read publications on the World Wide Web.
Direct access to the Internet came to Cambodia in 1997, with two providers: Bigpond, a joint venture between Australia’s Telstra and the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications; and CamNet, run exclusively by the ministry.
The Internet has not exactly flourished in Cambodia. Access remains expensive and impossible in most of the country which does not have access to phone lines or reliable electricity and cannot afford the required equipment.
It is also necessary to be able to read English, French or another language with a Roman alphabet because, although it is possible write message in Khmer with a special font, the software is not manufactured in Khmer.
“If you only spoke Khmer, you could send e-mail, but you couldn’t surf the web,” said Kea Kunthea, alluding to the lack of Internet sites in Khmer. “You need English. This is the same in Lao and Thailand.” She does write e-mails in the Khmer alphabet but the recipient also has to have the same font installed in their system in order to read it. Without it, the message is illegible.
There are, however, a surprising variety of web sites focusing on Cambodia from narratives written by travelers passing through to fans of Cambodia’s music and film industries. Some sites include Khmer language lessons. Others teach Cambodian history.
“Any means that can reach out to the public means giving people more choices and freedom to learn,” wrote Youk Chhang about his own site and the one run by the Cambodian Genocide Project at Yale University.
The easiest gateway to the various sites is frequently a search engine—a website that utilizes computer software to search the web for requested keywords—but the best entrance is through a page of links on a Cambodian-themed page or through the Cambodian WebRing—currently with about 200 members.
The range of the member sites is vast. Sungha is a shop in New England in the US that makes and sells Cambodian wedding dresses. Khmer Language and Literacy Development provides information for bilingual Khmer-English teachers. There are numerous sites exploring the more depressing aspects of Cambodia’s past and many celebrating popular culture.
“There are a lot more home pages dedicated to Cambodians,” said Paul Puth. “A few years ago, there were only a few.”
Hor Vanak is a 22-year-old student in Seattle in the US state of Washington. His “Noko Khmer” site—Khmer Country—features hundreds of files of Khmer music recorded in the early 1970s and photos of modern Khmer film and karaoke stars including Piseth Peaklica who was shot dead in July. The computer files can be downloaded onto one’s personal computer for free.
“I wanted to share Khmer culture with those who wanted to know,” he said by e-mail. “I also created this to mark an ‘x’ for Khmer in this huge cyberspace.” It took him 60 hours to set up his website but he likes the fact that it allows him to meet other Cambodians with similar interests.
The Internet has also allowed Cambodia’s political parties to get their messages out directly without being filtered through a journalist or other third party, particularly to Cambodians overseas. All of the three main political parties have their own websites in French and English with a little Khmer. “It’s for abroad,” said Lu Laysreng, the Information Minister and a member of Funcinpec Party.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy is the heaviest user of the Internet, peppering the world with his e-mailed statements from wherever he happens to be. The opposition politician frequently causes contention with both the content and quantity of his messages. “He uses it the most,” said Bill Herod, an adviser to Khmer Internet Development Services, or KIDS. “He’s angered a lot of people by sending out so much.”
The Internet has a lot of potential for Cambodia, according to John Caserta, an American Internet consultant temporarily living and running his business in Phnom Penh.
The Internet is one of the main reasons for the US’s current economic boom. It could be very good for Cambodia’s economy and open up a world of information, he says.
“It’s a huge library that you can draw on. You can learn a great deal right away…It could also be a way for Cambodia to leapfrog over some of its infrastructure problems and set up businesses without a lot of resources.”
The increasing commercialization of the Internet is spreading to Cambodia, albeit slowly. Wolfgang Jaegel, a 32-year-old German, arrived in Cambodia in 1997 to create a website for the Ministry of Tourism. Now, the chief executive officer and president of Indochina Project Operations Ltd, he plans to launch Cambodia’s first electronic shopping mall this month at his main site, Cambodia Web.
Southeast Asia Mall will carry much of the handicrafts that people now see at the Russian market but targeted to overseas buyers. “Cambodian handicrafts are quite unique,” Jaegel said in a recent interview adding that he expects craftsmen and women to profit as well as his own company.
With shipping thrown in, the cost online will be three times as much as buying in the market but half what the goods would cost in the West after going through five or six middlemen, according to Jaegel. He has the site ready to go. He’s fully-equipped to accept credit cards, the means of payment on the Internet. The main barrier is the infrastructure in Cambodia. He’s having problems finding a reliable and reasonably-priced method of shipping, although, according to Caserta, the shipping capacity demanded by e-commerce in the US is difficult for even its well-developed shipping infrastructure.
The site was not up and running before presstime.
Jaegel admits that his sites on Cambodia—including an events calendar, a business directory, a personal ad service, electronic greeting cards, a people-finding database and the Khmer-language newspaper Koh Santepheap (Island of Peace)—have yet to make his company money. His company’s profits come from sites created for and paid for by US companies. Hout Tola, a designer he trained, creates sites to US standards, but lower labor costs here means that Indochina is able to undercut their competitors’ prices.
Jaegel does, however, have faith that the Cambodian infrastructure and economy will catch up so that his services will also make money for work based at home.
“I believe in the economy and I believe in Cambodia. It’s not ready right now. The local market has to catch up. Costs for the Internet have to come down….But the infrastructure won’t always be like this. Things will change,” he said.