Happy 2014!

It’s 2014! Happy New Year from the City That Never Sleeps.

Firework at New York harbor as seen from Brooklyn bridge, shortly after new year on January 1, 2014. (Sophat Soeung)

New year firework at New York city harbor and Financial District as seen from Brooklyn bridge, shortly after new year on January 1, 2014. (Sophat Soeung)

And as a news-junkie, what a place to start the new year – the news never sleeps either! Just look at what happened in Cambodia on Day 2. Beyond Cambodia, it’s going to be an interesting year for ASEAN, with Myanmar chairing the regional grouping for the first time. Even in tech, 2014 does not look any less buzz-rich than last year with the expected and some unexpected trends.

After an eventful 2013, this new year promises to be an even more newsy year for Cambodia, Southeast Asia, and digital media. I will be trying to update this blog more often. So stay tuned!

Eric Schmidt: Get to Know the Digital Leaders of the Future!

Mr. Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, gives a lecture about technology and economic growth at the John Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) Wednesday, November 20, 2013. (Sophat Soeung)

Mr. Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, gives a lecture about technology and economic growth at the John Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) Wednesday, November 20, 2013. (Sophat Soeung)

Speaking to international affairs students and professionals at the John Hopkins University’s SAIS on Wednesday, Google’s Eric Schmidt advised them get to know the digital leaders of the future in additional to foreign policy leaders as the world is seeing a gradual shift of power.

“I think that the leaders of this digital revolution have earned a seat at your table. I really believe this. I think they’re just as important – they are not more important but they are just as important. And I would advise you to get to know them early. Get to know them when they are young. Get to know them when they are on their way up. Watch them change the world, figure out a way to support them, and figure out a way to follow them. Because those will be the people who will ultimately shape the discourse a decade from now, or two decades from now because they will then be, in power.”

Mr. Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, gives a lecture about technology and economic growth at the John Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) Wednesday, November 20, 2013. (Sophat Soeung)

Mr. Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, gives a lecture about technology and economic growth at the John Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) Wednesday, November 20, 2013. (Sophat Soeung)

He also advised countries and companies to attract and keep innovators:

“In building these networks, we are going to need innovators. Innovators are the lifeblood of these [network] models. You have to have entrepreneurs. You have to have people who have new ideas and you have to protect them.”

You can watch the full lecture and panel here, including my questioning at 52:00.

Predicting Cambodia: Before and After a Historic Election

My research paper for the East-West Center's Asia-Pacific Bulletin about growing influence of social media on pre-election Cambodia.

My research paper for the East-West Center’s Asia-Pacific Bulletin about the growing influence of social media in pre-election Cambodia.

I have finally received a color copy of my first policy paper published by the East-West Center, a prominent U.S. education and research institution. This short research has greatly boosted my confidence in predicting and analyzing events in Cambodia.

In this paper, I primarily argued that on the eve of Cambodian fifth general elections, a number of new socio-political variables have entered Cambodian politics, including a merger of Hun Sen’s political opposition, a sudden and accidental political awareness of a new generation I termed “post-Khmer Rouge baby boomers”, and a rise in nationalism that – unlike the 2008’s Preah Vihear drama – was more favorable to the opposition party’s anti-Vietnam campaign. Just months before the election, these new variables converged on the country’s exploding Facebook and other social media platforms, which are in themselves a significant variable. The growth pace of this “digital democracy” had kept it largely under the government’s radar.

Although (or because) published just days before the elections, the paper received only moderate publicity, except for the Bangkok Post. I was also too busy after the election to write a follow-up to it.

Nevertheless, I was among the first few observers who seemed to have fully grasped the changes in pre-election Cambodia. The points I laid out would later be confirmed by the election results and other Cambodia observers have since followed up on those social changes. It is a current hot topic among researchers and journalists and this latest piece in the Southeast Asia Globe could easily have been my own follow-up writing.

Predicting Cambodia is always interesting because the country must be one of the world’s most unpredictable. Due to its modern history and political ideology, Cambodia does not easily fit established political and social theories. New terms like “auto-genocide” and references like Phnom Penh’s 2012 “high-profile failure” over the South China Sea dispute had to be developed. July’s surprising general election also seemed to have put Cambodia closer to an Arab Spring than any other Southeast Asian country.

Well, these all make the job of guessing “what’s next?” in Cambodia all the more fun.

VOA Director Moderates Panel Discussion on Social Media [Mentioned]

VOA Director David Ensor moderating panel discussion on social media at RIAS event in Washington.

VOA Director David Ensor moderating panel discussion on social media at RIAS event in Washington.

Is social media changing the way journalists do their work and communicate with their audience?

That was the subject of a panel discussion, moderated by VOA Director David Ensor, at an event hosted on October 25th by the Goethe Institut, the RIAS Berlin Commission and German broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

Joining Ensor were two of VOA’s social media mavens: Yulia Savchenko, co-host of the Russian Service show Podelis, and Sophat Soeung, the VOA Khmer Service’s new media coordinator.

“A lot of people still think of us as being just on radio, when in fact we are multimedia, which includes television, and the web and especially social media and mobile platforms,” Ensor said. “As VOA Director, I oversee 45 languages services and I like to say we have 45 different marketing strategies.”

Sociologist Theodore Gerber of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, who has studied the impact of social media on the political landscape in Russia, joined the discussion via Skype.

Earlier in the day, award-winning VOA Persian journalist Arash Sigarchi participated in a separate panel “New Media – New Freedom?” which explored the impact social media is having in the democratic developments of a state.

German Ambassador Peter Ammon speaks to guests from the RIAS Berlin Commission and RIAS Alumni. photo © Germany.info; by Kaveh Sardari

German Ambassador Peter Ammon speaks to guests from the RIAS Berlin Commission and RIAS Alumni. photo © Germany.info; by Kaveh Sardari

Following the two panel discussions, participants took part in a reception at the residence of German Ambassador Peter Ammon.  RIAS chairman Erik Bettermann, IBB Director Dick Lobo, a member of the RIAS Commission Board, and former Ambassador Robert Kimmitt were also spotted mingling with the crowd of German and American journalists.

Since 1992, the RIAS Berlin Commission has been working to increase German-American understanding in the field of broadcasting and has hosted many VOA reporters on its fellowship program.  Panelist Sophat Soeung recently returned from a two-week exchange in Germany.

Original post appeared in the Voice of America’s VOA Buzz.

Social Media’s Growing Influence on Cambodian Politics

Note: This following analysis piece in the East-West Center’s Asia Pacific Bulletin No. 222 is my first major policy publication. It is about Cambodia’s nascent ‘digital democracy’ that is emerging around this year’s national elections. The PDF version is available here.

ANALYSIS

Social Media’s Growing Influence on  Cambodian Politics 

By Sophat Soeung, July 23, 2013

One month before Cambodia’s general election scheduled for July 28, the government announced a directive banning local radio stations from airing foreign programs during the campaign and election period. The directive temporarily banned programs from Western broadcasters including Voice of America and Radio Free Asia’s Khmer-language services. In response, the Cambodian public immediately turned to Facebook and other social media voicing their condemnation, followed by the US government and international media outlets, resulting in the government reversing the ban the next day. Both social media and the Internet are increasingly changing the dynamics of election politics worldwide, especially in countries with a high youth-bulge, and Cambodia is no exception to this trend.

Observers widely agree that the ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) will win the election, returning incumbent Prime Minister Hun Sen to power, a position he has held since 1985. As in its 2008 landslide victory, the CPP continues to maintain strong rural support, while presiding over rapid economic growth and maintaining a tight grip on the country’s media. However, social changes–including social media–over the past five years, along with political changes, will likely ensure that the CPP is short of its earlier landslide win.

An example of political change is that the two main opposition parties merged into one party, the new Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) under the leadership of Sam Rainsy, who has now returned from self-imposed exile in France to join his deputy, Kem Sokha, also a seasoned politician, for last-minute campaigning. In addition, the CPP is less able to use nationalism to attract the votes of the “post-Khmer Rouge baby-boomers”–those born after 1979–who are 36 percent of registered voters. It is this demographic that presents the single greatest opportunity for the opposition, a cohort that uses the Internet and social media rather than state-controlled media as an important source of news.

Social media, especially Facebook, is a recent phenomenon in Cambodia and to date has not been subject to governmental controls. Government figures show that from 2010 to 2012, Internet penetration in Cambodia jumped from one percent to nearly 20 percent, partly due to the proliferation of mobile devices. Facebook has emerged as the most popular platform and has registered over 900,000 users, including social-media savvy members of the opposition.

Even before opposition politicians began utilizing social media tools, civil society and human rights groups were already using them amidst Cambodia’s otherwise highly restricted media climate. Activists opposing Phnom Penh’s controversial Boeung Kak lake development project, in particular, utilize social media to gain public attention in a city with high Internet penetration. Videos of their protests have gained a lot of traction in local and foreign media and won them international recognition. Facebook has evolved from primarily an entertainment website to an alternative news source and platform for self-expression, and a way to bypass the state-controlled one-sided views on radio and television.

A small–and possibly staged–pro-government protest at the Cambodian Mekong University in May could be a watershed in Cambodian politics. This was an incident where protesters criticized visiting UN Human Rights envoy Surya Subedi regarding his negative report on human rights violations in Cambodia. Just two months before the election, the protest attracted an unprecedented youth reaction online–an “anti-protest” to the protesters. For the first time many young Cambodians showed interest in a political issue and freely expressed their views. Some uploaded personal videos criticizing the protest against Subedi that they considered unrepresentative of their views. One day after the online “anti-protest” reaction, Cambodia’s National Election Committee (NEC) issued an appeal for social media users to refrain from spreading misinformation.

The NEC’s call for public caution could help expand the impact of social media in Cambodian politics, a trend that some claim is already irreversible. CNRP opposition leader Sam Rainsy and others started their online election campaign to attract young voters well ahead of official campaign season. By June, Rainsy had claimed “victory” over Hun Sen for Facebook popularity. Not long after that declaration, Hun Sen’s Facebook page began posting more regular updates, often responding directly to issues raised by the opposition. Needless to say, the online campaign has allowed the opposition to bring up issues of interest to young voters–human rights, social justice, corruption, education, and unemployment. Online at least, the election process seems free and fair.

The impact of social media for now, however, is extremely limited in rural areas–the traditional electoral base of the CPP. Rural Cambodians primarily rely on state-controlled radio and television for news and information. Perhaps for this reason, the Internet in Cambodia has remained uncensored, which some proudly call “digital democracy.” On the same day as the NEC statement, Cambodian Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith said his government does not plan to shut down Facebook, but warned that “improper” content might be met with lawsuits. Over time, as the Internet expands into rural areas, social media will likely become more vulnerable to government censorship, especially under a CPP administration.

Irrespective of the upcoming election results, social media has created a nascent and more pluralistic online political environment where Cambodians exchange different political viewpoints freely. These are significant emerging trends that will impact youth political behavior beyond the July elections. Cambodia is following other Southeast Asian states in this trend, most recently witnessed in Malaysia’s closely fought May election.

Looking ahead, the international community, ASEAN democracies, and the US government should further invest in Cambodia’s emerging digital democracy and ensure that the Internet remains free. The US Embassy in Phnom Penh is to be commended for its many pioneering projects with youth and civil society–from blogging, to technology conferences and communications innovation. These initiatives have, however, done little to open up state-controlled traditional media to other political groups–something that the international community should continue advocating for. As freedom of expression continues to shrink off-line in Cambodia, it looks as if the role of digital democracy via social media will only increase in this election process. Furthermore, for Cambodia’s increasingly outspoken younger generation, online democracy may well hold the promise of off-line change beyond July’s election.

About the Author

Sophat Soeung is a Research Fellow with the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace and an independent journalist based in Washington, D.C.