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Filmmaker Documents Rise of Cambodian ‘Cyber-Democracy’

Young Cambodians are surfing the internet at a local cafe shop in Phnom Penh.
Young Cambodians are surfing the internet at a local cafe shop in Phnom Penh.

[Editor’s note: Cambodians are increasingly using technology to document rights abuses and have political discussions online. This “cyber-democracy” has emerged only in the last few years, through the spread of mobile phones and the Internet. American filmmaker Ellen Grant, who has been working on a documentary on this phenomenon, recently spoke with VOA Khmer.]

VOA Khmer: First of all, can you tell me what brought you to Cambodia and how your interest in making the documentary came about?

Ellen Grant is an American Filmmaker based in Washington State, who recently produces a documentary about Cyber-democracy in Cambodia. (Courtesy Image)
Ellen Grant is an American Filmmaker based in Washington State, who recently produces a documentary about Cyber-democracy in Cambodia. (Courtesy Image)

Ellen Grant: Actually, I was invited to Phnom Penh to work on a documentary that was being produced by a Canadian. And while I was there, I had an opportunity to meet and talk with a number of Khmer people that were involved with the democracy movement. I was so struck by their commitment and bravery that I just thought a documentary about the democracy movement, about the importance of Internet communication, was imperative to do.

VOA Khmer: Can you tell me briefly what the documentary is about?

Ellen Grant: Yes, this documentary examines the evolution of dissent in Cambodia and the effort to control the growth of cyber-democracy by an entrenched and corrupt government. The Internet has played an increasing role in democracy movement. The everyday reality of people in Cambodia and their response to issues that impact them, such as land grabbing, poor wages, and the overall suppression of free speech and assembly are documented on simple mobile phone and posted on the Internet.

VOA Khmer: The title of your documentary is “Cyber-democracy: Cambodia, Kafka’s Kingdom.” How do you describe cyber-democracy in Cambodia in your view?

Ellen Grant: Cyber-democracy is the grassroots participation of observers and participants in demonstrations, in protests that are posted on the Internet in order to raise awareness and to garner support for their effort to bring justice to aggrieved people of Cambodia.

VOA Khmer: Given that the legislature has now approved a law to govern associations and NGOs, and the government is working on a law on cyber-crimes, how will Cambodian people struggle for change through the cyber-democratic participation?

Ellen Grant: I think that maintaining a free Internet, free cyberspace for democracy is imperative. And my hope is that this documentary will, in some small way, bring focus on and understanding of the troubling reality in Cambodia, and the need to support democracy movement by helping to address injustices and the suppression of free speech and assembly in the country. The support from the international community, pressure from the international community, I think, is imperative.

VOA Khmer: Where does Cambodia sit for freedom of information and democracy within Southeast Asia?

Ellen Grant: Oppression is oppression. Suppression is suppression. How do you say one is more oppressed, or free speech or assembly is more restricted? If it is restricted, it is restricted. And so, obviously, free speech and assembly is problematic in a number of countries in Southeast Asia. So what is being revealed about Cambodia is certainly relevant to other countries in Southeast Asia and other parts of the world.

VOA Khmer: You have said that access to information is at the center for the struggle for change in Cambodia. Can you elaborate on that?

Ellen Grant: At the point in time, on one side, you have state-controlled media, which is essentially a mouth-piece for the ruling party, and the so-called power-elite in Cambodia. They are describing, they are creating the so-called reality, and anything that is going to counter that has to be communicated. The Internet is going to be wisely communicated. My mention in the documentary that in the countryside where the Internet is not available, there is no question that the reality of the situation is whispered from neighbor to neighbor. But the reach of the Internet is so huge, both within Cambodia and in the world community, that control of the Internet is essentially control of the dissemination of information.

VOA Khmer: When is your documentary expected to be released and available for screening?

Ellen Grant: I have entered a number of film festivals, and unfortunately, I am a bit restricted in terms of releasing the film until those film festival submissions are judged. It is available for screening, preview-screening in Long Beach, California, Oct. 24 of this year. I am very hopeful that we will be able to find some people to translate the narration, and then to provide the narration for the film in Khmer.