New Media for an Old Kingdom

KUON MON, CAMBODIA – Their machines roar and sputter, disturbing the serenity and quiet in this densely forested corner of Cambodia. But the men on motorcycles are always welcomed with smiles by the villagers of the remote upland communities here in the northeastern province of Ratanakiri, and a commotion almost always breaks out once they arrive.

On the motorcycles is the communities’ connection with the outside world: Wi-Fi (wireless fidelity) boxes that enable the villagers to download messages and material, as well as send their own mail and even wish lists for government officials to fill. Village schools are also benefiting from the new system, which links them to the Internet and has opened new horizons for learning for their students.

Introduced here in September last year, the technology now providing wireless Internet access to communities across Ratanakiri was developed by a dotcom start-up in Boston called First Mile Solutions. It is called Daknet elsewhere – inspired by the Hindi word for mail, since it was first used in rural India – but here it is known as the Internet Village Motoman project.

The project, however, is just the latest among some creative efforts to use information and communication technologies (ICTs) in bringing the people of this war-weary kingdom into the 21st century. Indeed, many Khmers are now enjoying unprecedented access to news and information, though many more who live far from the urban centers, including several communities here in Ratanakiri province, remain outside of the emerging information society.

Still, the new technologies are bringing changes to Cambodia. Says Pauline Tweedie, ICT program officer of the Asia Foundation, which is involved in the setting up of community information centers (CICs) in the country: “(They) are certainly helping to inform people. And information helps to empower people.”

She adds, “There are tens of thousands of people who now know about the Internet, who know how to access it and find information when they have questions. I think that has a tremendous power to make them a little bit active, and to get better in asking questions. That’s helping empower people.”

At the very least, innovations like the Motoman project are inspiring the children here in Kuon Mon to attend their classes regularly, even if it means traversing slippery, pot-holed roads and arriving in school splattered with mud. Dara Chanly, one of the teachers at the Gloria Jarecki School, says of her students, “They try hard to study. They like to learn English and are very interested to learn about computers.”

In August, Dara Chanly set aside some time to teach her students basic computer programs like Word and Paintbrush. After three months, those who fare well in class will begin learning about the Internet and electronic mail.

The Gloria Jarecki School is among the 15 rural schools in Ratanakiri that are integral to the Motoman project. Built with funds from the American Assistance for Cambodia/Japan Relief for Cambodia (AAfC/JRfC), each school is equipped with solar panels to provide up to eight hours of electricity a day. They are also paid a visit by the motomen each day.

The motomen ply five different routes around the province. But all of them start each morning at Banlung, the provincial center. There at the Ezra Vogel School, the central hub of the project, they collect email from the satellite dish before boarding their donated motorcycles and heading off in different directions.

A motoman visits one village school after another in his designated route, transmitting the downloaded messages and retrieving outgoing mails. At the end of the day, each returns to Banlung to hand over collected emails and Web search queries for the satellite hub to relay to the Internet.

Usually, the teachers act as the village e-postmen. Nop Vey, a teacher in the Sapporo Acasia Lion’s Club School, already considers it part of his tasks to send complaints or requests for assistance from residents via email to the provincial governor’s office. Just this May, he assisted the village chief with the community’s request for the repair of the school pump well, taking a digital image of the handwritten letter and sending it as an email attachment.

“Now the villagers are able to use the pump again,” says Nop Vey, although he notes that the governor answered a bit late since repairs were done almost a month later.

THE ORGANIZATIONS behind the Motoman project, buoyed by its initial success in Ratanakiri, are planning to bring it to other provinces. One possible site is Pailin in the west that was once the stronghold of the Khmer Rouge. “Our focus,” says AafC/JRfC country director Nuon So Thero, “is really on remote, isolated areas largely underserved by government.”

That could mean most of Cambodia. Fortunately for the Motoman project funders, others have picked up the slack elsewhere in the country. For instance, the CICs sponsored jointly by the Asia Foundation, local NGOs, and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), can now be found in all of Cambodia’s 22 provinces and municipalities. Located in the provincial capitals, the CICs are providing Khmers outside of Phnom Penh an alternative source of information – for free – in areas where the traditional media like newspapers have very limited or no presence at all.

Depending on the population density of the province, the centers typically have from four to 10 computers, all with Internet connectivity either via a satellite uplink or dial-up lines. Apart from free Internet and e-mail access, the CICs also provide library service with its collection of donated books, magazines, newspapers and other publications in both English and Khmer. Since their launch in 2003, the centers have welcomed students, teachers, government officials and employees, NGO workers, businesspeople, monks, and even farmers. The smaller centers like the one in Ratanakiri average 25 visitors a day, while the bigger ones attract from 100-150 visitors daily.

Run by a well-trained support staff, the CICs are able to provide other services like training on basic computer literacy and computer applications as word processing (Word), spreadsheets (Excel), and yes, the Internet and e-mail. The staff also pays routine visits to the remote districts and communes, bringing with them printed news, information and other downloaded materials that may be of use to them.

“We certainly acknowledge that locating the centers in the provincial capitals means there’s still a lot of people in rural areas who won’t be able to come in.,” says Tweedie. “That’s why we try to go to the communes to deliver the information.”

In Kandal, for instance, rice millers in the farther districts who cannot go the center alternatively get market information and other data relevant to their enterprise needs from the visiting staff of SME (Small and Medium Enterprise) Cambodia that operates the CIC in the province. An NGO promoting the development of the enterprise capacity of the private sector, SME Cambodia also manages CICs in the provinces of Battambang, Pursat, Kampong Chhnang, and Prey Veng.

“One time, we gave them information retrieved from the Internet about the existing alternative technologies like biomass and biogas which they can use to produce electricity for their mills,” says Un Roeurn, SME Cambodia provincial manager.

The CIC in Kampong Cham province — hosted by the Khmer Institute of Democracy – meanwhile also sponsors commune council meetings and holds lecture-discussions on democracy, human rights, the Constitution, land laws, politics and government to people who come from as far the Vietnam border.

The CIC project has also come up with a Khmer-language web portal (www.cambodiacic.org) that provides user-friendly access to a wide array of news and development-oriented information like Mekong River flood levels, human rights contacts, profile and contact details of national and local government officials, prices of goods and services, job listings, tourism data, and a lot more. Through the portal, the CICs are thus providing a network for information-sharing among government offices, NGOs and communities across the country.

Another recent development spawned by the setting up of the CICs is the publication of local independent newspapers, also under the auspices of the Asia Foundation, in the provinces of Battambang, Siem Reap, Kampong Cham, and Sihanouk Ville. Bearing the name Somne Thmey (New Writing), the newspapers are published twice a week and sold for only 1,000 riels (25 U.S cents or about P14).

PREDATING all these initiatives, however, is Open Forum of Cambodia’s information exchange service that began in the mid-1990s. Then and now it had mailing lists in English and Khmer on specific topics that relate to Cambodian life, such as the national elections, women’s issues, the HIV/AIDS menace, government’s decentralization policy and the state of reporting by the Cambodian media.

The CIC portal’s technology partner responsible for collecting data to be posted on the site, Open Forum is credited primarily for pioneering the use of Khmer fonts in writing e-mail and in websites through a simple technology of automatic font download. It is also supporting and coordinating initiatives for the development of free Khmer-language software.

But even the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications admits to the country’s backwardness in terms of ICT. With a poor fixed line network of only 30,000 lines capable of serving only 26 percent of the population, dial-up access to the Internet has remained limited to the urban areas. Then again, less than one percent of rural households have access to publicly supplied electricity, with 86 percent relying on kerosene as a source of light.

The political uncertainty of almost a year without a newly constituted government has also taken its toll on badly needed infrastructure projects. The impasse, which ended in mid-July, made Cambodia less attractive in the eyes of foreign donors and private investors.

Still, it’s not as if the government had no other pressing concerns to attend to. Cambodia, after all, achieved a semblance of peace only in 1993 after 30 years of warfare and civil unrest. At this point, the greater challenge the government is facing is how to rebuild and develop the country’s physical and economic infrastructure ravaged by the recent conflicts.

“If you have hundreds of thousands of children who don’t have access to education, millions of people who don’t have access to primary health care, then having access to information tends to pale in the political spectrum comparatively,” observes Tweedie. “So it may be an issue of trying to balance conflicting priorities or other demands on limited resources.”

As it is, many are pointing to the lack of basic literacy and access to education and the concomitant language problem as the more fundamental barriers to the full integration of all Khmers into the information society.

Majority of Khmers are either illiterate or semi-literate and cannot speak or read in English, the main language of the Internet. The Khmer Loeu, or the tribes that make up the majority of the population of Ratanakiri and the neighboring province of Mondolkiri, cannot read and write even in Khmer. In Dara Chanly’s classes, teaching English and computer skills to indigenous students requires the services of a teacher assistant translating from the Kreung dialect to the national language and then to English, slowing down the learning process.

“It’s very difficult,” admits Dara Chanly. “I have to teach slowly. That way, students also learn very slowly.” The usual three-month period for classes, for instance, may take her Kreung students up to six or nine months to complete.

All these are among the reasons why many aid agencies and NGOs have argued that simply wiring every corner of the country will not narrow the digital divide. According to Dr. Supote Prasestsri, education program specialists at the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the more appropriate response is “to think not in terms of individualized access but more of community-based access.”

Tweedie says this is also why the community information centers were not located outside of the provincial capitals. “We didn’t feel it’s necessarily the correct time within present developments to introduce something like computers, especially when people are still dealing with conditions in which their basic needs are not being met,” she says.

“Besides,” Tweedie adds, “technology is going to come along in a time that’s right.”

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