Meet Cambodia's social media elite - the Cloggers

On the political power of blogs, Sopheap points to the reactions by Cloggers to Burma's 2007 Saffron Revolution. In a rare move, they co-ordinated demonstrations against the Burmese embassy and denounced Cambodia's support of the regime. Some also took part in International Bloggers' Day for Burma that same month, each dedicating a post to the protesting monks.

In nearby Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand, governments actively chase down and jail critical bloggers. Vietnam is also ramping up censorship, authorities announcing in December they are to ask Google and Yahoo to help 'regulate' the web. Yet no Cambodian blogger has been blocked or arrested.

"Politicians have either not noticed political blogs or they're deeply suspicious of them," says Preetam Rai, former Southeast Asia editor of Global Voices Online, a blog aggregation service. "I think Cambodia comes under the first category. Practically speaking, blogs reach a very small percentage of Cambodian people. The politicians might as well ignore them for now."

But politics aren't the Cloggers' main focus. Most don't bother and many don't care. "Most Cambodian bloggers don't directly attack the government so, I believe, they won't be on the bad side of any government," Rai says. "The hope is that some from the current crop of bloggers end up in government in couple of years' time."

Rai also notes that Cambodia is a very young country and many high-ranking officials are likewise youthful and tech-savvy. "These are the people who can be influenced by blogs," he adds, optimistically. "The Cloggers are doing the right thing by showing people technology in a neutral way. Cambodia needs a generation that can discriminate information, by showing people online tools that can help them verify things."

Children of government officials, likewise, have been studying at universities abroad, bringing back knowledge of blogs and English fluency that gives them access to the internet world. "We see a lot of foreign influences coming into blogging culture," says Prum Seila, a journalist who blogs about Cambodian popular culture. "Government kids are coming back to Cambodia and blogging like us. They're also bringing ideas about democracy."

Seila thinks foreigners and foreign-educated Cambodians bring an 'open-source culture' because they're commenting on Clogs, challenging young Cloggers. "You wouldn't see anything like it if we weren't talking to foreigners. They bring ideas and challenges, and make us think differently about new things," he says.

Is English elitist?

Unlike Vietnam or Thailand, where bloggers write in their native languages, Cambodians tend to blog in English, linking them, says Prum Seila, with a global audience. "It's a good thing we blog in English, because how else can we inform the world about our thoughts and our problems?" he adds. "We're putting Cambodia on the map."

But Cloggers have had a long-standing debate over whether to blog in English or Khmer. English, they claim, is the language of the internet; web proficiency means reading and writing in English. Others disagree, saying a country shouldn't have to change language just to use the web.

That's why the Phnom Penh-based Open Institute has been perfecting its Khmer language Unicode. With the project including popular comedy blogger Be Chantra, whose blog "TraJoke" is in Khmer, the font has certainly been catching on. "Cambodia's English-speaking population is an elite," he says. "With Khmer, we can reach a wider audience and have a bigger impact."

But some Cloggers aren't convinced. Tharum contends that anyone who can use the internet can also read English. Seila thinks English brings much-needed international attention to Phnom Penh. Plus other Cloggers mention the possibility of getting censored once their writings are available for all of Cambodia to read.

Chantra and the Open Institute maintain their optimism. "As more Cambodians get access to computers, which is happening, more of them will write in Khmer," he says. Cambodia's growing literate middle class could indeed solidify Khmer above English. But their taste for foreign knowledge and culture could also reverse that trend."


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First published by .net, Issue 186

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