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03/16/2009 02:22 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Once isolated from the outside world, Cambodia jumps online

Monks head online in Phnom Penh.

Several decades ago under the communist Khmer Rouge, Cambodia was isolated and cut off from much of the outside world. While the Internet has since expanded the range of global communication, most Cambodians still lack Internet access — only about 70,000 people are online.

Tharum Bun is the information technology manager at The Asia Foundation in Cambodia and writes at the “In Asia” blog that while Internet access may be scarce, those who have embraced the Web — including a former king — have used blogs to engage in dynamic and open dialogue.

Cambodians Embrace Online Dialogue

Cambodia has over 13 million people, but currently, less than 2 percent have regular access to the Internet. Cambodia's official language is Khmer, but these Cambodians who chat, e-mail, and blog on the Internet - and the approximately 23 percent of Cambodians who text with their mobile phones - find it easier to use English. While low Internet penetration, language barriers, and technical issues with using the Khmer scripts limit the amount of Cambodians who can engage in online dialogue, those Cambodians who are entering the international blogosphere are breaking a pattern of devastating silence and isolation.

The former King (or King Father), Norodom Sihanouk, now 86, makes regular postings about Cambodia's past and present on his website. The former Prince - fluent in Khmer, French, and English - posts communiqués and reactions to media reports regularly. Originally launched in 2002, the King's website became a new digital medium for global visitors. Cambodian media largely use their websites as a source for information, taking the King's comments and those of his critics, and translating them into Khmer. The King's online conversation and personal digital medium is inspiring young Cambodians to engage the Internet as a forum for discussion and debate, and to learn English as a second language.

After the Khmer Rouge fell in the 1980s, Cambodia experienced a big baby boom; today 60 percent of the population qualifies as youth. Because of their English language skills and affinity for technology, Cambodian youth make up the largest number of Internet users in the country and are, like the King, engaging in online debate. This group of active Internet users writes mostly in English, given both the technical difficulties of inputting Khmer characters, as well as the widespread use of English among their audience: their own peers and the international online community.

This dynamic online dialogue has helped pave the way for a more open discussion in a country torn by civil wars in recent decades. The trauma inflicted by the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979) is still a major point of discussion in Cambodia. Cambodian intellectuals, who were once the target of mass killings, and their surviving children, use their knowledge of the English language and technology to express their opinions and views. To move Cambodia past years of silence, this is essential. The King has used his website to post his thoughts on social order and past politics, encouraging today's Cambodian youth to use online forums, chat rooms, and blogs to discuss issues from everyday life to larger, social issues.

While this new emergence of online voices, in a language other than their own, doesn't necessarily reflect the progressive thinking of the entire nation, it is a starting point of voiced, diversified opinions.

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Photo courtesy of Flickr user Magalie L’Abbé under a Creative Commons license. A Worldfocus contributing blogger writes that though the majority of Cambodians lack Internet access, those who are online have used blogs to engage in dynamic and open dialogue — decades after the Khmer Rouge cut off links with the outside world. /files/2009/03/th_cambodia_internet.jpg

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