Cambodia’s New Intellectuals

Posted by: | Posted on: November 24, 2008

by Geoffrey Cain

After France granted Cambodia independence in 1953, an impassioned renaissance swept Phnom Penh in the 1960s, a resurgent Angkorian nationalism alongside a potpourri of foreign influences tha included Beatlemania and existentialism. Many saw the city— once called the “Pearl of Asia”—a neutral safe haven from the havoc that rocked neighboring Vietnam and Thailand. Artists, writers and scholars frequented Phnom Penh’s beautified universities and cafés, discussing the great works of Jean-Paul Sartre and Picasso, while musicians and dancers revived traditional Khmer styles from the country’s Angkor-era height. Even then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the movement’s figurehead, was a filmmaker and singer who led a jazz band.

Fast forward a few years. Bombing campaigns, military coups and civil war rip the country apart. Intellectuals are targeted and wiped out under the Maoist Khmer Rouge regime from 1975-79 and their works​​​ destroyed. A former Khmer Rouge cadre named Hun Sen bullies his way into power in 1993 against United Nations-backed election results, and then orchestrates a coup against his co-Prime Minister Norodom Ranarridh in 1997. His ruling Cambodian People’s Party consolidates power in the media, and rampant corruption rankles the universities. Debate and discussion are left dead and a country is in ruins.

Yet today a brimming young movement of intellectuals resembling those of the 1960s is quietly—and sometimes anonymously— creating change in Cambodia. They mostly draw on the same inspirations and discuss the same topics of culture, politics and romance—the latter remains a highly taboo topic. Some even listen to the same music, writing about the classics of Simon and Garfunkel. Yet unlike their predecessors, these intellectuals do not mingle in French-style cafés and art galleries, but in the new wireless Internet cafés springing up in Phnom Penh.

Looking at them, one would think they are just a typical group of youngsters. During lunch breaks and on weekends, they can be seen in popular Monivong Boulevard hangouts wearing ripped jeans and headphones, clicking away on their quirky, stickered laptops, stopping sporadically for a sip of iced coffee. Virtually all are under 30, born during a 1980s baby boom that followed the Khmer Rouge genocide. They represent a small but growing tech-savvy middle class of students, lawyers, technology professionals and journalists, who only recently came of age in a society where little public discussion of issues exists.

Formally banding together in 2006 in a project to teach students about technology, this new generation of intellectuals never actually refers to themselves as “intellectuals.” The word’s archaic connotation foregoes their 21st-century context. Perhaps more appropriate for an environment dominated by mobile phones and cyberspace, they have instead named themselves “Cloggers,” a portmanteau of “Cambodian bloggers.” And, as the name implies, they blog—turning to the unregulated Internet medium because they would have little chance to speak their minds otherwise.

With stilted shacks and slums lined along Phnom Penh’s dirt roads, and a populace of which 33% earn less than $0.50 a day according to optimistic government statistics, Cambodia is remarkably wired. After King Sihanouk, now King-Father, started Cambodia’s first blog in 2002 and the Cloggers began their educational tours of the country, blogging mania swept Phnom Penh; a “blogosphere” once numbering 30 bloggers spawned into a vibrant community of pundits, photographers and diarists now innumerable.

Even though only 2% of Cambodians have regular Internet access on computers, the urban blogging craze can be partly attributed to Cambodia’s widespread mobile-phone culture that also offers mobile Internet access. Only a high rural illiteracy rate of 75% stands in the way to larger change, say Cloggers. “We have a dichotomy. Cambodia has leapfrogged landlines to embrace modern, high-tech mobile phones. Users aren’t afraid of technology. But phones are not reaching their full potential,” said John Weeks, an American blogger who has lived in Phnom Penh since 2003. “If ordinary Cambodians can overcome the language barrier and literacy barriers, phones have incredible gateway potential that would dwarf the current blog boom.”

The trend is only set to grow despite literacy shortfalls. The recent introduction of 3G mobile-phone technology into Cambodia promises high-speed Internet access from anywhere—even the remote northern provinces—for only $35 a month or less. Enthusiasts can also attach their 3G phone to their computer and use it as a makeshift satellite modem, even if they’re traveling in the electricity-starved countryside.

Complementing their taste for global technology culture, that prospect fuels the intellectuals’ desire to continue shaping Cambodia’s public discussions. “Blogs arereally a way of culture-sharing and getting discussions going, something Cambodia really needs now,” reflected Keo Kounila, an inquisitive young Clogger and journalist who voraciously reads John F. Kennedy and Mahatma Gandhi. “It’s that we’re trying to find a unique way to bring more foreign ideas to Cambodia, but put them into a Cambodian context.” Like others, she’s noticed that blogs in Cambodia attract the attention mostly of their American counterparts, who she thinks bring an “open source” culture to Cambodia—referring to the technology movement that strives for free flow of ideas.

Prum Seila, also a journalist and university student, chimed in while humming to his favorite Beatles tune on his mobile phone. “Foreigners give us a lot of ideas about social issues and the problems of globalization, with the garment factories. Cambodia really needs those new ways of thinking about things,” he added, noting that Cambodia’s current blogging scene resembles the 1960s mostly because of its American cultural influence.

The duo credits foreign attention to the fact that many Cambodians blog in English, as opposed to neighboring Thailand and Vietnam where blogs are largely in local languages. “It’s important to bring more international attention to Cambodia with English, because our issues haven’t been that known for very long,” Mr. Prum added. But as the Open Institute in Phnom Penh spreads its Khmer-language Unicode project, a Cambodian font constantly being tweaked, more Cloggers have embraced Khmer to tap into a local audience.

“We should not give up our own language so we can blog in English,” said Be Chantra, a Unicode developer and Khmer language blogger. “With Khmer, we can make a bigger impact on important decisions in Cambodia, with a more local voice.” But overall, English remains the language of choice for Cloggers who seek global discussion and an escape from government authorities. One Clogger even exclaimed that Mr. Be’s initiatives could get them censored someday.

In a country where the ruling party dominates most newspapers, radio stations and television stations—Mr. Hun’s daughter, Hun Mana, even directs the popular Bayon tv channel—young bloggers like Ms. Keo and Mr. Prum feel that blogs are the only place to foster fresh, nonpartisan discussions. Both said political self-censorship on the part of newspapers, which read more like tabloids, keeps the Cambodian public ill-informed to pressing issues like corruption and land evictions. Unlike nearby Malaysia, Thailand and China, however, the Cambodian government does not actively censor blogs, making it a preferred medium to evade authority. Many say the country’s power elite just haven’t caught up with the times yet, or that they lack the resources to implement rigorous censorship programs. Others say not enough Cambodians read controversial blogs.

Some media outlets have taken advantage of the government’s blind eye to the Internet. Following a spat last May between the government and English-language Cambodia Daily newspaper over a supplement about Burma, the newspaper circumvented government authority by publishing it online. To the surprise of many, Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith’s stance on the Daily’s choice was favorable: “It’s online. It’s OK,” he announced. Wide implications for the Cloggers followed.

Since Cloggers see the cyberspace as an escape, blogs fill a crucial gap against mainstream media that politicize important issues, Cloggers say. Some point to the current border conflict at the Preah Vihear temple. After UNESCO listed Preah Vihear as a World Heritage Site in July, the popular station CTN aired a celebration program showing Mr. Hun’s portrait encircled by stars with the national anthem being performed in the background. Many provincial stations are now reportedly being used to recruit citizen militias in light of the Oct. 15 border skirmish that left three Cambodians and one Thai soldier dead. Cybernationalists have also taken to Internet forums and Wikipedia, vandalizing Web sites with propaganda and bras confrontations that border racism. The Cloggers, however, became the intense focus of a heated but sophisticated discussion on scholarship and history related to the temple, something they say Cambodian tv stations and other Internet sources completely left out.

After she returned from reporting on the Preah Vihear crisis, Ms. Keo reflected in her blog about the writings of the ancient Chinese diplomat Zhou Daguan who documented his trips to Cambodia in the 13^th century. In his memoir, he observed Cambodian soldiers carrying their swords everywhere as a testament to their willingness to fight. She concluded with more questions. “Does nationalism mean that you have to die for your country all the time while you leave someone else suffering?” A flurry of comments and discussions ensued, which she said is unheard of in the “real world” of Cambodia.

Teng Somongkol, a former lecturer at the Royal University of Phnom Penh and now doctoral candidate in Minnesota, also took to historical literature and blogged a well-documented record about Thai soldiers pushing 45,000 Cambodian refugees off the cliffs of Preah Vihear in 1980. “In fact, man Cambodians, especially those of my generation who was [sic] born in the 1980s, are not even aware that this horrible event took place,” he wrote. “What they were taught was about the Khmer Rouge period, but not about what happened at Preah Vihear.” He noted that, as a Buddhist, his goal was not revenge but only to point out the “terrible things” that have happened at the temple. His commentary earned him a spot in the Phnom Penh Post newspaper.

Despite the heated debates of nationalism and scholarship, blogs in Cambodia mostly discuss everyday topics like relationships and culture. But more controversial blogs still maintain a firm presence the “Clogosphere,” like the blog of vocal activist Chak Sopheap, who regularly criticizes government leaders over issues of corruption and forced land evictions. She’s already received one death threat, she claims. Her public profile is a gutsy move while most other blogs critical of the government remain anonymous.

“I am often asked by many friends whether I am intimidated for my outspoken statements,” proclaimed the former employee of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, which received international attention in 2005 when two of its activists were arrested after a peaceful demonstration. “Officials feel insecure when there is resistance. I’m just advocating for a change of attitude by them to listen and tolerate different opinions.”

Now, the youthful and eloquent speaker is pursuing a master’s degree in international relations in Japan, a country from which she draws inspiration for her writings. “I’ve learned from a different cultural context about how crucial good governance is,” she said, referring to Cambodia’s corruption problem that led Transparency International to rank it the 14th most corrupt country in the world this year. “I’m trying to take a comparative perspective about Cambodia in my blog, learning from my professors about the Japanese spirit of success. I don’t mean that other cultures or practices are inferior to Japan, but just that we can integrate these experiences to our benefit.” She hopes to include her favorite blog posts in a book one day.

Of all the great rising Cambodian thinkers, paving the trail is Bun Tharum, widely received as the leader of the Cloggers. A 25- year-old technology professional, Mr. Bun takes inspiration from Western individualism, Ayn Rand and Charles Dickens. He’s a prolific photographer who documents everyday life in his popular blog with haunting and dazzling imagery. Also a writer of short stories, he hopes to publish the next great Cambodian novel in the tradition of the 1960s, an age he longs to revive. “Young people have a lot to learn about this country, about its history, about how it was run. The 1960s were the greatest time for Cambodia,” he said, eyebrows dipped in reflection. “We haven’t completely realized that dream yet. But I remain optimistic.”

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