Nation’s ‘Bloggers’ Hope To Facilitate Dialogue

Bun Tharum first started keeping an online diary in June 2004, prompted by his interest in technology trends. And while he’s not 100 percent sure, he believes he is probably the first blogger in Cambodia to hit the Internet.

However, the 23-year-old National University of Management graduate’s blog—which deals with everything from life around Phnom Penh to his views on gambling—is about to be joined by many more Cambodians.

About 60 young Cambodians in four provincial towns recently received training on how to create and publish their own English-language blogs in a project that the International Republican Institute’s Alex Sutton hopes will create a trend among Cambodians, and prompt more political dialogue.

Cambodians with access to the Internet will be able to manage and publish their own Khmer-language blogs sometime next month, according to Javier Sola, coordinator of Open Forum of Cambodia’s Khmer Software Initiative.

While Internet access throughout the country remains limited and expensive, Sutton says there is a growing interest among educated Cambodians about blogs.

Enough interest that a Web site associated with Harvard University—called Global Voices Online—recently predicted that Cambodian blogs are “ready to take off.”

Blogs, short for Web logs, first appeared on the Internet in the late 1990s and have become hugely popular since 2003, with estimates saying there are more than 50 million worldwide.

Blogs are used to comment or report on news events and a variety of other subjects, including technology, culture and politics.

Some are silly, some are serious, many are mundane. Most are written by individuals, but there are collaborative blogs and blogs that include photos and links to other Web sites. Readers of blogs are able to post comments, making them another device for conversation and debate on the Internet.

When Bun Tharum, from Kandal province, started his blog in June 2004, located at www.tharum.blogspot.com , he highlighted his work at Open Forum of Cambodia, the organization which first brought e-mail to Cambodia in the 1990s and is now working to create Khmer-language blogs.

But in recent months, Bun Tharum has written about news events and reflected on his observations about Phnom Penh.

Recent posts have addressed gambling, domestic violence, corruption and the Khmer Rouge tribunal. Last month, he posted excerpts from news stories from the Siem Reap hostage crisis.

And there are more personal postings. He recently wrote of his gratitude for the French NGO that provided him with food, clothing and books when he was a boy.

Last week, he wrote about his stolen motorbike: “At least I was not, as many others, injured or shot at [a] robbery scene,” he wrote. “I have to save much of my salary for several months to get another used motorbike. And I will have to delay to buy…a watch and a laptop.”

Bun Tharum says he writes his postings at Internet cafes on weekends, or at the office during the week. He tries to publish twice a week.

A Web site that tracks the number of visitors to Web sites said Wednesday afternoon that Bun Tharum’s blog receives an average of 29 visitors a day. But that doesn’t count those who view his Web site via RSS, a syndication service that lets subscribers read Internet content on a separate Web site.

Attention from outside the country has helped. Rebecca MacKinnon, a former CNN correspondent in Beijing and Tokyo, has written about Bun Tharum on Global Voices. His blog is also listed alongside expatriate bloggers in the Cambodia section of Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia.

“Sometimes I get e-mail from people who are about to travel here or who just want to know about the situation in Cambodia,” Bun Tharum said in a recent interview.

Last month, IRI conducted three-hour trainings in Siem Reap, Battambang, Kompong Speu and Kompong Cham provinces that resulted in about a dozen new blogs that IRI assistant program officer Mean Lux hopes will be updated weekly.

While would-be bloggers in Kompong Speu weren’t able to get a reliable Internet connection on the day of the training, some students in Battambang and Kompong Cham have posted several photos and brief comments. More than a dozen more IRI trainings are in the works.

Mean Lux said the most common question from those being trained was whether people in other countries could read their blogs, which 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.

Open Forum’s Sola has high hopes for the Khmer-language blogs, which will be available for free at www.khmeros.info.

“Our purpose [at Open Forum] is to foster and facilitate communication for democracy. Blogging fits really well into that,” he said.

In China, the government has blocked blogging Web sites, and in Iran, several bloggers have been imprisoned after criticizing the government there. Whether authorities here will clamp down on online dissent remains to be seen. Over the years, retired King Norodom Sihanouk has posted biting political commentary on his Web site, prompting spirited responses from Prime Minister Hun Sen.

When asked earlier this week if he would ever write about politics, Bun Tharum said: “Oh, I’m afraid to. But maybe I’ll start later.”

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