PHNOM PENH —
Just ten years ago, Cambodians relied on dingy, storefront Internet businesses if they wanted to get online. Computers were old, power cuts were frequent, and overhead fans creaked along in a failing attempt to keep customers cool as they paid per minute to “surf” the Internet or to simply send and receive emails.
Local businessman Sourn Narein remembers that time, not so long ago, when smart phones were unknown as were Wi-Fi-enabled laptops. On a recent morning, as he sipped an Italian-style coffee in a trendy air-conditioned café in Phnom Penh – surrounded by other young customers online with their expensive phones and tablets – Sourn Narein stated the obvious: “It’s getting really more modern.”
Even five years ago, Cambodians still lacked such technology, he told VOA.
“It’s making life better and more convenient,” he said. “I can connect better with my customers.”
Young, urban, middle-class Cambodians have access to all the latest hardware and software. They follow the news on their smartphones and research their assignments for school and university online. Economic growth, higher incomes, and better standards of living for some have contributed to a rapid change in the country’s adoption of digital technology – particularly in the major towns and cities.
The statistics are compelling.
According to the Telecommunication Regulator of Cambodia, the country is in the process of a dramatic digital transition: the number of Internet users grew from about 320,000 in 2010 to 6.7 million by the end of 2015. The digital marketing firm Geeks In Cambodia reports that, in 2016, the number of active Facebook users stood at 3.4 million in a total population of some 15 million people. In addition, it is not just ease of doing business, the growth of social media in the country also contributed to changes in the political landscape of the country.
Vibrant use of social media platforms and digital devices by Cambodia’s youth was widely believed to have contributed to the extremely strong performance of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party in the 2013 national election. The ruling Cambodian People’s Party lost 22 seats in the National Assembly that year.
“Information and communications technology are almost completely changing the way Cambodians live and work these days,” said Khov Makara, a spokesman at the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications.
In April, the government revealed its medium-term vision for information and communications technology in a policy paper that aims to achieve greater “connectedness and readiness” by 2020.
“The Cambodian government categorizes telecoms and the ICT sector as two fundamental pillars that will push the country’s economic growth,” says the policy document, which speaks of boosting the role of technology in driving e-government, e-commerce, and technology for development, or “tech4dev.”
Probably realizing that so many politically-aware young people were using social media as their primary platform for communication, Prime Minister Hun Sen in recent months adopted Facebook in earnest, and has told his cabinet to implement the principals of e-government so that his government can providing fast, responsive, accountable service to citizens.
The ICT policy paper also focuses on improving computer literacy among public servants.
“Technology is helping many [public and private] institutions to achieve better, more accurate, quality work,” said Kheng Piseth, who monitors the sector for the Open Institute, a Cambodian NGO focused on developing education and access to information technology.
ICT is important for growth in many sectors in the economy, said Kheng Piseth, though there were also risks due to the fast-changing technological environment and the rapid influx of information.
“It’s not technological devices or programs which are harmful, but users themselves make the use of those technologies harmful,” he said.
The government also acknowledged similar issues in its ICT policy paper, noting that e-commerce was slow moving due to issues surrounding online security, including securing payments.
With ICT reshaping the economic and political landscapes, some are now employing ICT to deal with community problems, such as Sreyneang On’s LiGeek team, which consists of five middle school students all under the age of 15. LiGeek created the ImEx mobile application, a marketplace platform to connect farmers with potential buyers. The app has received widespread praise and international recognition.
Sreyneang, 13, said that she and the rest of her all-female LiGeek team, wanted to alleviate the common difficulty farmers are confronted with in having to work through “middlemen” to get their farm produce to markets and consumers. Middlemen often squeezed farmers on prices to get the best deal possible in order to make the most profit from consumers.
“So, we created this mobile apps in the hope that farmers will get paid better prices for their hard work,” Sreyneang told VOA Khmer.
The government also wants to encourage technological innovations to solve community problems, said Khov Makara, of the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications.
The Open Institute’s Kheng Piseth suggested that adequate thought should first go into figuring out what the people’s needs are, and how to better provide for those needs, before focusing on inventing need technology just for the sake of invention.
Better to define a problem and solution first before creating technology and trying to adapt it to a problem, which it may not actually be able to solve.
“We should try and predict the future needs of the people and figure out what they will want to make their livings conditions more convenient, before thinking of inventing something new to deal with those needs.”