First published on Banyan Blog:
THARUM BUN, 32, BLOGGER
Tharum Bun, 32, is an experienced voice in the Cambodian blogosphere and digital media space. Blogging since 2004, he’s been a contributing writer for the Phnom Penh Post, Asian Correspondents, The United Nations’s Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) and Global Voices online. He has worked as a digital media strategist for the Voice of America (VOA Khmer Service) where he designed and implemented online strategies to reach out to Cambodian youth.
Tharum co-organized BlogFest Asia in 2012 and founded BarCamp in 2008, the first technology conference in Phnom Penh. He is on the board of Mekong ICT Camp, BarCamp Cambodia and Open Development Cambodia. In 2009, he was awarded a Leadership in Journalism Scholarship from the Sasakawa Peace Foundation. Tharum was also recently selected to participate in the 2014 U.S. State Department’s International Visitors Leadership Program (IVLP), on the category of “Media Literacy: Promoting Civil Society through New Media.”
Born in Kandal Province in 1982, Tharum went to Beng Trabek High School and earned a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration, with a major in Marketing at the National University of Management in Phnom Penh. He has spent his entire career in media as well as Information and Communications Technology (ICT). I interviewed Tharum to get a better understanding of the intersections of social media and technology in Cambodia, how open development can help Cambodia and the future of digital media in Cambodia.
Q. What was it like growing up in Cambodia? What were some of the challenges you’ve had to overcome to be where you are today?
A. I was born a few years after the war was almost over. My parents moved from my hometown to Phnom Penh since I was a little boy. We settled in the city since then. I’m fascinated by changes in my neighborhoods, childhood friends, the city, and my schools. As my parents had to raise seven children, including me as the second oldest, I realized that I have to be much more on my own. Back then I could manage to as a volunteer and a part-timer to support my study. This self-independence is an integral part of me. I value being a self-made man.
Q. Who has been the most influential person in your life and why?
A. My parents. They struggled for some years, but they kept moving on. From time to time, my father told his children about learning and acquiring skills. My mother worked very hard back then. She’s very devoted to raise us. I feel that their warmest love makes me a stronger human.
Q. Which leaders have influenced your views the most on how technology can be used for citizen empowerment for participatory development?
A. I read one of Bill Gates’s books, The Road Ahead, in the early 2000s. It’s when I became very fascinated by personal computers. It’s also when I started to develop my faculty of wonder and keep learning and discovering. I think information and knowledge are an essential power for Cambodian people before we can think of participatory development. The machines make things easier and fun. It’s one of the stages to empower citizens.
Q. In 2004 you were one of the first bloggers in Cambodia. How has the social/digital media environment changed in Cambodia since you started blogging?
A. The Internet helps open up this country. So little discussions among the nation’s intellectuals, not to mention ordinary citizens, you can find on the net. Blogging is the first step to revolutionize the way we’re willing to discuss, share our thoughts, and start our dialogues. I started blogging in 2004. Only a handful of bloggers here in Cambodia and abroad began blogging about their personal lives and some views on social issues. Blogging workshops, Clogger (Cambodia bloggers) summit in 2007, and media attention were crucial to popularize Cambodia’s blogosphere and its community, years before Facebook’s presence. The number of bloggers is growing slowly right now, but what’s important is they’re getting to more critical. A really good example is: CAN’T STAND (views from a female Cambodian). You can locate it here: http://cannotstand.wordpress.com. One of her latest blog posts is about her views of Cambodian politics. It’s an excellent blog post. The last decade means people get familiar with the tools. Today I expect to see great discussions and debates that contribute to Cambodia’s political and social development.
Q. What are some challenges and opportunities for Cambodia as it embarks upon the digital media age?
A. As we have seen in the recent years, last year in particular, positive changes have taken place here. Cambodia’s young generation embrace technologies; they’re eager to be connected and engaged. Digital media, a new form of traditional media, is a platform to deliver news and information to citizens.
With more information from a variety of sources, they will be much better informed. I’d rather see it as an added-value than a challenge. One of the opportunities now is that we have a greater communication tool to exchange information; a tool that people are so excited about. Digital media is not a catalyst of what brings changes. But it can help kindle people’s interest in social issues and politics again.
Q. Why is open development important to Cambodia’s future and what will it take to get there? How can technology and social media be used to have more of an inclusive environment for development?
A. Being informed Cambodians, they demand more than less. Social accountability and good governance are the fundamental part of building a modern Cambodia. The technological tool and platform make it easy for the government, research institutions, think tanks, and the private sector to share and collaborate. But as important as this sophisticated technology itself is human collaboration before we can realize that the essence of open data, which leads to a more dynamic development.
Q. In March 2013 Cambodia saw a 60% rise in Internet usage which amounted to 2.7 million users. While this is good news, out of a population of close to 15 million, many are still without access to the Internet. What (if any) consequences does this have on Cambodia’s development?
A. I’m sure that this remains good news for now and several more years to come. The trend of the growing Internet penetration is just unstoppable. Another good news is that people no longer really need a computer to access to the Internet. Back in the early 2000s, electricity, expensive hardware, and lack of infrastructure were among the issues to tackle. But we now face a new phenomenon. An article by Colin Meyn on Southeastern Globe magazine says that, “it’s estimated that there are 19 million mobile phones in Cambodia – 1.3 phones for each of the country’s 15 million people – and an increasing percentage of them connect people not only to their friends and family, but also to the worldwide web.” The author also opined that “Currently, more than two million Cambodians are connected to the Internet and, unless the government decides to do something to stop it, that number will increase exponentially in coming years.”
The past decade was painfully slow in term of getting people connected to the Internet. But we’ve seen a new record of growth of net users in the past few years. With businesses’ interest and people’s demand, this means we’ll see this trend will continue. So I see this a positive aspect and hopefully leads to positive impact.
Q. Twitter and Facebook are popular social media platforms in Cambodia, especially among the youth. In your opinion, what is the next big thing in technology as it pertains to the ICT/digital media world in Cambodia?
A. I think mobile devices will dominate the way we express ourselves and how we access content. The next big thing is the giant Google+. Google’s own social networking site is late into the game, but its dominance in both online and smart phone ecosystem tie the users well. Its strategic reach through budget smart phones fit so well for those larger popularity of Cambodians who are not yet wired.
Q. Over 70 percent of Cambodia’s population is under the age of 35 and many of them are active users of social media. You’ve designed strategies to reach out to youth. What are some tips you may have if one wanted to reach out to this demographic online?
A. I’m glad I started early when seeing a potential opportunity. It needs the investment of time and resource. But as a multi-skilled person, I could manage to do more with less. I think it’s first to understand the group of audience that you want to target, their need, and what we’re really good at as a content producer to respond to that. For instance, the young audience now craves what’s happening right now. This means that a news organization needs do much more. Journalists have to learn new skills, including gathering first hand information through crowd-sourcing and social media sites. They need to learn to vet and verify online materials, while they also understand about the importance of immediacy and the life cycle of news.
As my job was to focus more on online audience, Cambodian youth is my prime target. Young Cambodians are excited about getting connected, social media, and mobile technologies. This demographic, if we fail to reach out to them, we’ll miss a great opportunity for they’re not interested in traditional radio broadcast, the way that the older groups are. Thus, news programs have been tailored to educate, entertain, and inspire this new, growing group of audiences. The online platforms also make it easy for them to have their voices heard, even crossing the platform. For instance, an important question on Facebook gets a mention on radio broadcast to the nation-wide audiences.
Q. Where do you hope the future of ICT/digital media will be in 10 years time in Cambodia?
A. For the past 10 years in Cambodia, it was about building infrastructure, introducing and evangelizing technologies to the people, the next step is utilizing content. To describe how content matters much more, Bolivian writer and communication specialist Alfonso Gumucio Dagron puts it nicely that “when we talk about technology we are only referring to instruments, not to social, economic or cultural development. A knife is just a knife; it can be used to hurt someone or to carve a beautiful wood sculpture. Content and utilization is what makes the difference.”
Q. You’ve been able to build a successful career at a young age. What advice would you have for young people who may be struggling but want to follow a similar path?
A. To know what we’re really good at. If not, find it. To know who the person we are and what we want to do personally and professionally. It’s very depressing when we struggle, but it can be a lifetime lesson to realize how vulnerable we are as human beings. When we realize this, we can be better.
Read Tharum’s blog at: http://tharum.com/blog/