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Cambodia's New Intellectuals

Ever since Geoffrey McCain wrote an article with this title in FEER, responses to this article have been roaming the internets. Somongkol, here in Minnesota now and a truly excellent blogger, published images of the article, and Chanroeun Pa, another good Khmer blogger, published the text itself.

(that reminds me – I desperately need to update my blogroll, which has been neglected for over a year now).

DetailsAreSketchy published a brief response to the issue, pointing out that the concerns on Khmer blogs (‘cloggers’) rarely intersect with the concerns of foreign bloggers such as myself (floggers?) on Cambodia (to be clear, DAS doesn’t mention any specific foreign bloggers). This is a tremendously important point, and more attention needs to be paid to the voices of Cambodians.

But, as is pointed out in New Mandala’s take on it, by Maylee Thavat, whose blog is now read-protected, unfortunately, there are serious problems with the rise of these independent voices which must be addressed at the same time that these new voices are supported. First and foremost, perhaps, is the issue of literacy (:

With stilted shacks and slums lined along Phnom Penh’s dirt roads, and a populace of which 33% earn less that $0.50 a day according to optimistic government statistics, Cambodia is remarkably wired….Even though only 2 per cent of Cambodian 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.

75 per cent is a big “only” in my books and is perhaps what keeps “cloggers” largely free from government harassment and potential assassination. Only time, GDP growth and increased rural development and education will tell whether the “clogosphere” remains a sanctum of free speech or not.

This disparity of education limits the hopefulness of these new intellectuals in two ways, as far as I can see (they also of course, limit the contributions of us ‘floggers,’ whose voices should not be as important anyway). First and foremost, those with little access to blogs, whether these limits are structural (poverty, digital access), or educational (illiteracy), simply cannot read what these new intellectuals produce. If the cloggers intend to help shape Cambodia’s future, and I believe that most do (and are), this disparity must be addressed, and fast.

Secondly, while there are undoubtedly exceptions, most modern cloggers, like most foreign academics, come from the relatively comfortable classes, with education, homes, supportive families, and privileges that are not shared by the illiterate, homeless, hungry, unsupported, and unprivileged. To overcome this particular disparity requires a great deal of self-examination and the exercise of a disciplined empathy. It can be done, and often is. But it does mean that the voices we hear are not those of ‘the Cambodian people,’ but of a specific subset within it.

I’m pleased to hear those voices, and I’m sure most of them join me in hoping that we can push forward for ever more diversity among those voices, and the inclusion of the dispossessed, the poor, and the hungry in Cambodia. Education will be key.

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