Star bloggers the top five: The Phnom Penh Post

This article, by Claire Knox, was first printed in The Phnom Penh Post on Wed, 7 November 2012

More than 200 bloggers and social-media aficionados from Cambodia and its ASEAN neighbours descended on Siem Reap last weekend for the Blogfest Asia 2012 regional festival. Although speakers identified an overall lack of internet usage in the Kingdom (because of high costs and poor coverage in provincial areas), they said social media use was proliferating among Cambodia’s younger generation, particularly in the biggest cities, Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Battambang. As a result, they said, the government should utilise social media and the internet in the public school system.

Claire Knox profiles five of the Kingdom’s best budding Khmer bloggers.

THARUM.COM/BLOG
With a penchant for striking photography, self-declared “techno-geek” Bun Tharum was one of the country’s pioneer bloggers, publishing his first post in 2004. Tharum’s informative, clean and frequent posts revolve around technology, the web and social media itself. The 30-year-old is a technology reporter and contributor for Voice of America Khmer. With a slick layout, he features biographies and interviews with other bloggers and social media enthusiasts, “top tweets”, top YouTube videos uploaded about Cambodian events (the King’s death coverage was particularly thorough) and photo-essays of his travels.

“I think my job is about my views; it’s my own space, an outlet for things I cannot express as a journalist,” Tharum says. He believes that with the landscape of Cambodia changing at such a rapid pace, now is the ideal time for the younger generation to blog. “I feel I should keep documenting important events in Cambodia, not as a journalist, but as an ordinary person… I believe blogs will be reconstructed as more legitimate historical documents,” Tharum says.

KHMERBIRD.COM
A Cambodia “what’s on” and one of the most popular blogs among locals, averaging 300 hits a day and with 345,000 unique visits since he started it, according to author Phin Santel. The 35-year-old has been blogging on pop culture since 2008, “when there weren’t many bloggers at all”.

He spends four hours a week writing on his site, which he envisages as an important space for discussion in the future. “My vision for my blog is to make it a place where people can share information about Cambodia. I’ve designed it as a free platform for everyone who wants to promote Cambodia.

My vision for my blog is to make it more accessible and provide valuable information about Cambodia,” he says. His pertinent posts on how to live in Phnom Penh (such as “How to relieve stress in a traffic jam”) are particularly appreciated. Other posts take a similarly practical vein: “Where to buy Cambodian street food to save you a lot of money.”

With video links to documentary and film screenings at local cinemas and on television, guides to purchasing cheap flights, restaurant reviews, book reviews and local sports highlights, Khmerbird is a thorough, colourful and light-hearted synopsis of Phnom Penh.

DUCKORINO.BLOGSPOT.COM
University student, author and cartoonist Sovathary Bon, 23, describes herself as “just an ordinary Cambodian girl”, yet her uncluttered, sleek looking blog, Cambodian Daughter, which focuses on her photography, art, poetry and cute-as-pie cartoons inspired by tales of her mother’s childhood, belies the modest bio. Many personal blogs run the risk of coming off as narcissistic or self-indulgent, but Sovanthary’s self-effacing musings on everyday events in her life – Khmer festivals, her favourite images and artwork, poetry and her friendships – provide an insight into what it means to be a young, female Phnom Penh-er.

The blogosphere is certainly tuning in to her – at the time of going to press, Cambodian Daughter had accumulated more than 46,000 hits. She was one of eight Cambodian bloggers invited by the US embassy to visit the USNS Mercy when it visited Sihanoukville port in August, documenting the day in photos. Duckorino has a sister blog, camtoonista.blogspot.com, which focuses purely on Sovathary’s comic strips and the adventures of sweet cartoon protagonist Ginger. A charming reflection on life as a 20-something in the Kingdom.

BLUELADYBLOG.COM
A journalist and one of Blogfest’s organisers, Kounila Keo was a speaker at Cambodia’s first TEDX event in 2011, discussing the influence of blogging on Cambodia’s Gen Y. She has since flown all over the world to educate students on social media at workshops and conferences. The prolific blogger has also created training courses for wannabe bloggers, university students and artists. “Seeing the lack of online participation from . . . Cambodians, I believe I can play a small part in bridging the gap,” she said.

In 2009, Keo was selected to study Web 2.0 and online journalism at the Deutsch Welle Akademie in Germany, and was chosen as one of 10 bloggers and journalists to represent the Asia-Pacific region at the UNESCO Youth Forum in Paris last year. The blog’s greatest asset is its detailed previews and coverage of large events, workshops, festivals and conferences directed at youth around Southeast Asia.

The 24-year-old blends this, as well as lighter travel stories, with commentary on social issues, the government and human rights, historical pieces on the Khmer Rouge and more personal stories that ponder death, happiness and relationships.

SOPHEAPFOCUS.COM
Although she doesn’t blog as relentlessly as some of the others listed, articulate political commentator and Cambodian Centre for Human Rights (CCHR) program director Sopheap Chak provides comprehensive analysis and political commentary on human rights and social issues in Cambodia. Sopheap, 27, who is studying for a master’s in Peace Studies, joined CCHR in 2006. It was a controversial time for the organisation when activists, including then-president Kem Sokha, were arrested for defamation, which she says spurred her interest in freedom of expression and fighting corruption.

Sopheap’s style is more academic than personal, yet it’s laced with her opinions and issues she is passionate about. Recent posts include an essay on the youth labour market in Cambodia and an opinion piece on women’s rights in this country. She also blogs about health services, migration, the environment and land rights, and says it is crucial to form an identity online to engage audiences. “I think every blogger has to define their own purpose first – my primary opinions are on human rights in Cambodia, and I can be very open on my blog.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Claire Knox at claire.knox@phnompenhpost.com

The technology helping Cambodia’s disconnected and hardest to reach

Author’s note: this blog post was first published in ICTWorks.org.

In a nation of about 15 million people, Cambodia has over 19 million mobile phone subscribers. In addition, there are only about 3.8 million Internet users. A 2014 report published by the United Nation Development Program (UNDP) says that “Mobile phone access is near universal for young people… Almost all youth (96%) in Cambodia have access to mobile phone.” The nation’s largest population, young people, prefer to communicate via phone calls rather than text messaging. “They used their mobile phones mostly for making and receiving calls (98%), listening to the radio (43%), and sending and receiving messages (32%),” adds the UNDP report.

Mobile technologies are the key to help improve people’s quality of life. Unfortunately, programs delivering critical information via mobile texts to citizens were unavailable in the local language, Khmer. Many used and new phones that the Cambodians used did not have the ability to type or show words in the Khmer script language, making needed information unreadable and unable to send via texts.

Since 2011, InSTEDD iLab Southeast Asia, a Phnom Penh-based innovation lab of InSTEDD (Innovative Support to Emergencies Diseases and Disasters), has helped a dozen of humanitarian and health organizations to leverage InSTEDD’s Verboice, an automated voice platform for hotlines, alerts, reminders, surveys, voice reports, or quizzes. These organizations’ target groups are very diverse: new mothers, garment factory workers, youth groups, and diabetic patients.

Verboice is an adaptable open-source platform that makes it easy for anyone, speaking any language, to create and run their own customized automated voice response systems for mobile phones. Highly customizable and scalable, Verboice allows users to adapt to suit their requirements. Verboice is basically a non-developer’s platform to create mobile applications for non-smartphone users.

In Cambodia, Verboice’s impact has been incredibly powerful as dozens of organizations are using the technology to provide critical information to thousands of citizens. For example:

  • The International Labour Organisation (ILO) runs an interactive information hotline for factory workers
  • Marie Stopes International Cambodia (MSIC) uses automated messages as part of its post-abortion counselling approach
  • People In Need (PIN) uses automated messages to provide new parents with health advice as well as runs an early warning system, enabling Cambodian authorities to quickly inform citizens of upcoming disasters
  • BBC Media Action provides the audience with an additional medium so that they can engage with the program’s content

What Are Cambodia’s NGOs Doing?

  • The economic implications for patients traveling to a health center for follow-up and the sensitivities associated with contraception and abortion tend to discourage clients from seeking health advice. But this innovative intervention, relied on a pre-recorded voice message, sends out to MSIC’s patients every two weeks over the course of the four months following their abortion. “They might forget about their appointment because they’re busy with work, or there might be personal reasons. This kind of technology helps women access this information remotely,” said Dr Sann Channa, head gynaecological surgeon at Phnom Penh Municipal Referral Centre. Find out more here.
  • The International Labor Organization’s Better Factory Cambodia (BFC) uses Verboice to quiz factory workers, so that they can learn about labor rights with mobile phones. This project has received more than 50,000 calls since it began in September 2013. In addition to quizzing, BFC is able to crowdsource information from workers by switching to rating questions, which can be easily designed on the user-friendly interface of Verboice’s platform. Read more here.
  • Given the rapid and widespread uptake of mobile phones in Cambodia, including those in rural areas, People In Need (PIN) looks to Verboice as a way to conduct a targeted messaging campaign. In the 10 months since the start of this pilot, over 1,500 people registered for the newborn support service, and approximately 210 women continue to register every month (roughly 80 percent of all women giving birth at the participating health centers).
  • The iLab Southeast Asia is a locally run innovation lab focused on the sustainable design and development of technologies for social good. To learn more about how the iLab SEA’s project partners harness this open source platform Verboice, you can check out these new case studies.

Dr. Chris Smith, who leads MSIC’s Mobile Technology for Improved Family Planning (MOTIF) initiative, once said “In a world where technology is quickly evolving, it is easy to forget that many people, particularly those most in-need living in rural areas, use simple phones with just their voice.”

Additional Links

Tharum Bun is a Communications and Digital Media Manager at InSTEDD iLab Southeast Asia. He’s passionate about the intersection of technology and the humanities. His writings have appeared in The Huffington Post, Asian Correspondent, Tech In Asia, The UN’s Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), and Global Voices Online, The Phnom Penh Post. Find him on Twitter: @tharum

“With God on Our Side” by Bob Dylan

[haiku url=”http://tharum.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/WithGodOnOurSide.mp3″ title=”With God on Our Side” graphical=true]

Oh my name it is nothin’
My age it means less.
The country I come from
Is called the Midwest
I’s taught and brought up there
The laws to abide
And that the land that I live in
Has God on its side

Oh the history books tell it
They tell it so well
The cavalries charged
The Indians fell
The cavalries charged
The Indians died
Oh the country was young
With God on its side

Oh the Spanish-American
War had its day
And the Civil War too
Was soon laid away
And the names of the heroes
l’s made to memorize
With guns in their hands
And God on their side

Oh the First World War, boys
It closed out its fate
The reason for fighting
I never got straight
But I learned to accept it
Accept it with pride
For you don’t count the dead
When God’s on your side

When the Second World War
Came to an end
We forgave the Germans
And we were friends
Though they murdered six million
In the ovens they fried
The Germans now too
Have God on their side

I’ve learned to hate Russians
All through my whole life
If another war starts
It’s them we must fight
To hate them and fear them
To run and to hide
And accept it all bravely
With God on my side

But now we got weapons
Of the chemical dust
If fire them we’re forced to
Then fire them we must
One push of the button
And a shot the world wide
And you never ask questions
When God’s on your side

Through many dark hour
I’ve been thinkin’ about this
That Jesus Christ
Was betrayed by a kiss
But I can’t think for you
You’ll have to decide
Whether Judas Iscariot
Had God on his side

So now as I’m leavin’
I’m weary as Hell
The confusion I’m feelin’
Ain’t no tongue can tell
The words fill my head
And fall to the floor
If God’s on our side
He’ll stop the next war

Rawan Da’as

Rawan Da'as in New York
From Jordan, Rawan Da’as says “I’ve got more than just a dream. First, I want to be a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer. Second, I dream of being an ambassador to Pensacola, Florida [disclosure: I’m already an honorary citizen of this beach town.]”

Rawan is my first Jordanian friend; she’s amazing. She wrote a blog post about her experience, which is really worth reading: http://rawandaas.wordpress.com/2014/04/29/ivlp/

A decade as a blogger

First published on Banyan Blog:
http://www.banyanblog.com/4/post/2014/02/tharum-bun-32-blogger.html

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/

Live blog: home to workplace by bus

February 5
The motor taxi driver told me that he’s worried about this this public transportation as he’s got only one source of income.
No bus ready to run
Opening remark on the very first day at bus station opposite to the French embassy
Taking a motor dub from home to the bus station station.

February 4
Tomorrow, I’ll hop on the bus to my workplace. From my home to the bus station, I’ll take a moto taxi first.

We’ve talked a lot about traffic jam, too many motorcycles and vehicles, and no public transportation. Starting early this February, the bus will run on Monivong Boulevard. It’s an opportunity for most of us, who are willing to get back on the bus.

Tune in to my live blog of this unique experience. I’ll be using my magnificent Moto G to update this blog post. I’m sure I can also enjoy reading George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four on my Kindle Paperwhite.

Meet Mitty Steele: Banyan Blogger

In my series of “Cambodian bloggers on blogging,” I have a conversation  with Banyan Blogger Mitty Steele. A Cambodian-born American, Mitty is a writer, photographer, and communicator. This is an unedited email interview.

It’s a great honor that she accepted my request for this exclusive interview. If you, readers, want to drop her a line, please send it to banyanblog [@] gmail [.] com. You can also follow her on Twitter, @banyanblog.

Tharum: Is Mitty Steele your birth name? Or do you have a Cambodian name? What is it?

banyan_blogger_cambodia
Photo courtesy of: Mitty Steele
Mitty: Mitty Steele is not my birth name. I was born in a makeshift camp the Khmer Rouge set up in an area they called Oak-a-bao in Battambang Province, December 1975. I didn’t have a formal name when I was born because my parents didn’t think I would survive. A woman at the camp nicknamed me Kley, which means “short” in Khmer because I was a malnourished child who didn’t seem to grow.

We suffered under the Khmer Rouge regime for four years until the Vietnamese came in 1979. We evacuated the camp and fled to the Thai border and stayed at the Khao-I-Dang refugee camp. After a few months, my father had a friend who lived in Virginia who agreed to sponsor us to the U.S. As he was preparing the paperwork my father realized he didn’t have a formal name for me yet. Together with his friends they named me Mittpheap (which means friendship) as a way for them to stay friends. Therefore, my formal name became Mittpheap You (Steele is my married name).

We settled down in Arlington, VA in 1981. When I was in elementary school teachers couldn’t pronounce my name and some kids would make fun of it. One of my friends nicknamed me Mitty, which was easier for her to say, and the name has stuck with me ever since. My family and Khmer community I grew up with still call me Kley, however, my American friends, colleagues at work, and people I meet now call me Mitty.

How did the Khmer Rouge impact you personally?

The Khmer Rouge changed the course of my life. I often wonder what my life would have been like had there been no Khmer Rouge. Like my brothers and sisters, I would have been born in a hospital instead of a hut in the woods. Our family would have had enough food to eat. Instead, I had one brother who died of starvation, and another executed for trying to steal rice for my mother who was dying of starvation. Both of whom I never had the chance to know, as well as the countless family members who were killed during that time. Life was so fragile and meaningless back then and I often wonder why I survived, as a baby, with little food and no medical care when so many people who were stronger than me perished.

The Khmer Rouge not only changed the trajectory of my life but the entire trajectory of the country. Much like my life, I often think about what Cambodia would have been like with no Khmer Rouge. The brain trust of the country was systematically executed or fled, institutions were destroyed, our beautiful culture was defaced and the respect we had for parents and elders and the institution of family diminished.

Without the Khmer Rouge, I wonder if we could have been a middle-income country by now, or would have the same problems such as extreme poverty, land grabbing, deforestation, sex trafficking, weak rule of law, and corruption. These problems exist in other countries too, but I wonder if it had not been for the Khmer Rouge, who destroyed the social and economic fabric of the country, if these things wouldn’t be as pervasive.

The Khmer Rouge modus operandi was to have Cambodia start over from year zero. In some ways they succeeded. When the regime fell in 1979 Cambodia started over with nothing. It has been 38 years since the Khmer Rouge and the country is still trying to rebuild what was lost in those years. Cambodia has come a long way since then, much progress has been made, but much more needs to be done.

Since when did you think of taking this journey back to your home country?

Growing up, my parent’s always told me stories of the hard times our family went through during the Khmer Rouge, but it was always bits and pieces of stories I’ve heard throughout the years. As such, I’ve always been interested in learning more about our life during that time and what their lives were like before the war.

To get a better understanding, I started interviewing my parents in 2003. These interviews helped me to get a more complete picture of our family story and Cambodia’s history. They told me about their childhood living in Takeo Province in the 1940s, how they met in the late 1950s, getting married and starting a family in the 1960s and finally the Khmer Rouge era in 1975-1979. Through these stories, I wanted to see the places they described and experience for the first time, a country I never had the chance to know. With these interviews and through a process of self-discovery and appreciating that my culture and heritage made my life richer, I realized I was ready for the trip back.

During the past 30 years, what/how did you learn about Cambodia? And tell me what you see and think about the reality of this country, comparing to what you read, heard, and were told?

Most of what I had learned about Cambodia was from my parents, and the stories they shared about life’s difficulties during the Khmer Rouge regime and a little about their lives before the war. As I grew older, I learned of the many problems Cambodia faced after the Khmer Rouge (civil war, political problems, landmines, extreme poverty, trafficking, land grabbing, deforestation, and more). I always had the impression that it was an unstable country and too unsafe to visit.

My parents returned to the country in 1996. They said it was a chaotic experience. After living in the U.S. for 20 years they were not used to being back. They were not used to being asked for money at the airport, trash piled high in the street, poor or little infrastructure such as unpaved roads, makeshift bridges, poor phone connection, and unreliable energy. Things we took for granted in the U.S. Most of all, they were not used to seeing so much poverty and so many landmine victims. It was not the Cambodia they remembered before the war.

Even though it was painful for them to see their country this way, they also spoke fondly of their visit and being able to reunite with long lost family members and friends they hadn’t seen over 20 years, to visit their home village, and to experience being totally immersed in Cambodian culture again. Needless to say, it was an emotional visit for them.

Before I decided to go in 2004, they painted a realistic image of Cambodia, speaking of the good and bad things I would see. I had also read about other issues Cambodia faced beforehand. I felt I was prepared to handle it. Yet, when I finally arrived the reality of what I had been told and read over the years was much more stark when I saw it in person. It was an eye opening experience. Especially meeting my uncle’s family for the first time in Takeo village. Seeing their poverty and life situation of working hard and still being stuck in poverty, made me realize how fortunate we were to have the opportunities we had in the U.S. This could have been my situation, and by the hand of fate we were able to escape it.

What also surprised me is that even though there was a lot of poverty and suffering, I also saw a lot of hope and determination in people to make a better life for themselves and a relentless spirit to survive. The country was also a lot safer that what I had expected, and people were very warm and welcoming.

Things are a lot better than when I first visited in 2004 and that hope and determination is still as strong as it was back then. Yet, what I have noticed is while things have improved, the gap between the rich and poor in Cambodia seems to be widening. I’ve seen more Lexus and Range Rovers in Phnom Penh than I have seen living in the Washington D.C. area for over 30 years. These vehicles cost more than twice as much in Cambodia than they do in the U.S. due to taxes, and most people pay for these high priced items in cash. It’s not something that makes sense to me and it’s hard to reconcile these stark contrasts of extreme wealth and extreme poverty on a daily basis.

Why did you choose this blog to tell your stories? And why name it Banyan Blog?

I chose blogging to tell my stories because it’s my journal of what I am discovering everyday about Cambodia. For me, it is the best form of expression and in the future, my children will have this digital archive of our experience in Cambodia. It’s also a tribute to my father who recently passed away. He loved Cambodia deeply and always wanted to share Cambodia’s story with the world.

A banyan is a large tree with multiple trunks and deep and complex roots. I chose to name it Banyan Blog because that is the story of Cambodia, a country that has a rich culture but complex past. Every day that I am here I am untangling these roots to better understand the country, and our family story.

What made you to come back to rediscover your original roots? Why you think it’s essential? Do you think it’s also the most important missing elements for other Cambodian-Americans of your generation?

After my first visit in 2004, I always knew that at some point in my life, if I had the opportunity, I would live in Cambodia for a few years, to get to know the country in a deeper way than just visiting for a few weeks, and in some way give back. It was miraculous that a few months ago my family and I had a great opportunity to live in Cambodia for a few years.

I think it’s essential for the Cambodian diaspora, particularly my generation, to understand where they come from. The older generation is starting to fade away, and it is up to my generation to continue to tell their story, to pass down these traditions to our children or else it will be lost. For the diaspora, this is extremely difficult to do when you are permeated by the influence of another culture on a daily basis, and the youth just wants to assimilate into the society and identity of another culture. I can understand this because this is what I wanted to do growing up.

If we try to know our history, teach our children our culture, visit Cambodia, understand the issues it faces, it strengthens our identity and our bond to our country. It gives our children a strong legacy and sense of identity. In addition, many of us in the diaspora are fortunate to have the opportunities we are given outside of Cambodia, so if we are able to, we should give back what we can.

What would be the only thing (current or future project) you want to be known for in Cambodia?

I’ve always believed I survived for a reason and part of that was to give back to my country some day. My current project is this blog, but I hope to contribute in other meaningful ways towards the country’s development in the near future once I have a deeper understanding of the country’s strengths and weaknesses, and where my skills could be best utilized to help improve the country.

However, if I were to leave Cambodia tomorrow, I would want to be known as trying to show the world through my writing that Cambodia is much more than the history of the Khmer Rouge, or the everyday political and social problems it faces. Often times, we only read about these issues in the news, and the complete picture of Cambodia is lost, and it creates a perception that Cambodia is an unsafe, unruly country without morals or a conscience.

Yes, there are serious issues Cambodia faces, and serious inequalities. There are many people writing about these everyday, but it seems to me what is missing are the stories in between that are insights into the past, stories of people’s lives of daily struggles and triumphs, stories of celebrating culture, stories of hope for the future. I want to try to give a complete picture of Cambodia as possible by uncovering the past, showing the present, and presenting people’s hopes and dreams. I want to be honest as possible to show the good as well as the bad, all through the eyes of someone who is rediscovering the country again.

For the young Cambodian diaspora in particular, I want to spark their interest in getting to know the country. If I could influence just one person to start thinking about how they could reconnect with their country, to learn about their culture, issues Cambodia faces, and to discover their roots through my blog, then I feel honored to have been part of the start of their journey.

Social media fires up Cambodian polls

When Cambodians went to the polls in July this year, social media not only posed a challenge to the traditional mainstream media but also to the country’s status quo.

With its hands holding a tight grip on the country’s traditional media, the Hun Sen government virtually ignored social media, while the main opposition party, Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), strategically and heavily used the web-based platforms to reach out to young voters and build its support base.

While the elections were marred by irregularities the results also showed that the country’s electorate is yearning for change as shown by the large number of seats won by CNRP at the parliament. It was a reflection of the political mood that was prevalent in various social media outfits prior to the elections.

Election observers describe how social media – primarily Facebook and other online discussion platforms – completely changed the political environment in the country and encouraged the citizens to speak and voice out their opinions online. With social media sites, young voters turn to their smart phones for news, information about the candidates’ platforms, as well as to engage in political debates.

Cambodians shared news stories published by local and international media outlets and generated a substantial volume of online content, including discussions, photos and videos. First-hand reports of violence at polling stations, and political demonstrations were quickly uploaded and played a vital role in keeping the public as well as the mainstream media journalists informed of the latest events during the elections.

In a country of 14 million people where about half of this population is under 21 years old, mobile phone subscribers overtook fixed-line subscribers as early as 1993. The leapfrog effect did not stop. It has contributed to the rise of mobile Internet adoption, which enables owners to communicate, access, and share information.

According to a report by Xinhua News Agency, the country’s six network providers sold 19.1 million SIM cards last year, far exceeding the nation’s population. Meanwhile on the popular networking site Facebook, there are more than 1,140,000 registered users in Cambodia.

Even if internet penetration is still very low in terms of the number of computer and mobile phone owners, many Cambodians have access to information via internet cafes or from their neighbors in the village, who own smart phone devices.

A project partner of Diakonia Cambodia, the Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM) has built its social media presence among the information-hungry Cambodian Internet news consumers. CCIM, through its radio broadcast and online news site, Voice of Democracy (VOD), provides balanced news reports, especially focusing on the plight of the marginalized communities in the country. VOD journalists and citizen journalists have been equipped and trained to master mobile technology for news gathering, reporting, and production.

During a recent protest by the opposition party supporters in Phnom Penh, VOD’s digital journalist Tiang Vida “took photos of the rally and forwarded them to his editor via Facebook along with brief news updates. A few minutes later, his dispatches appeared online,” reported English-language newspaper The Phnom Penh Post.

This remarkable rise in popularity of social media among Cambodians, especially the youth, is seen to help transform the country’s political and media landscape by serving the need for more news and information, and more importantly, by amplifying the voices of Cambodian people.

This blog post was first appeared on Diakonia blog on 2013-10-25.