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!

Opposition Looks To Facebook for Election Push

A screenshot of the Facebook page of Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy on June 14, 2013, showing a fan number of over 70,000. That number, he claims, makes him the most popular Cambodian politician on Facebook, out-beating another page profiling Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen. (VOA Khmer)

A screenshot of the Facebook page of Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy on June 14, 2013, showing a fan number of over 70,000. That number, he claims, makes him the most popular Cambodian politician on Facebook, out-beating another page profiling Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen. (VOA Khmer)

Original: Sophat Soeung, VOA Khmer, June 20, 2013

WASHINGTON — Editor’s note: With no access to traditional media ahead of the July national election, Cambodia’s opposition is increasingly turning to the country’s small but growing online media to attract voters. Last week, opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who is president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, celebrated online “victory” over Prime Minister Hun Senafter his Facebook page attracted more 70,000 fans. That number, he claims, makes him the most popular Cambodian politician on Facebook leading into the July 28 elections. He spoke to VOA Khmer via phone last week.

Listen to full interview in Khmer here.

What does your “victory” mean?
I want to take this opportunity to thank all my Facebook fans, especially the youth. The majority of my fans are those under 30; from around 18 to 30 years old constitute the largest group. They are mostly educated, with computer and English skills, so they are the educated and future leaders of the country, this Facebook generation. Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Facebook page is fairly popular, with around 67,000 fans. But this page is already three years old, while my Facebook page is only three months old. Within these three months, I have basically surpassed him in terms of popularity. The content that is shared on Mr. Hun Sen’s page are official and important documents that must come from the government or someone close to Mr. Hun Sen. No one else would have such documents.

Why do you think that the Internet/social media in Cambodia has remained free and uncensored?
This is a technological, social and cultural trend occurring worldwide, especially among the young generations, which no one can stop. Even in China, which we consider a communist and highly restricted country, the government cannot shut down Facebook or the Internet. They might regulate or censor it, but they cannot shut it down. So even a superpower like China cannot shut down the Internet, let alone an aid-dependent country like Cambodia.

Are you concerned that the Cambodian government might try to shut down Facebook during the election?
I believe that Mr. Hun Sen’s government has an interest in blocking Facebook, because it has encouraged the educated youth to share and exchange news and ideas freely and safely, leading to a change of mindset. So I believe the Cambodian People’s Party is very concerned about the growth of Facebook and will probably attempt to shut it down. But I don’t think they will be able to do so, to prevent that trend.

You are targeting young voters. But since you don’t have a physical presence in Cambodia, don’t you think there is a limitation to use Facebook to reach especially people in the rural areas?
I believe that my online presence has more impact than my physical presence. That’s because if I go somewhere, I’m only physically present in one place; while on Facebook, I can simultaneously be present in countless places. I can even reach people in their homes anytime and engage with them on a very intimate level.

Malaysia which recently had an election also has a similar political climate to Cambodia. Observers say social media helped the opposition there, but Malaysia has a much higher Internet penetration than Cambodia. How optimistic are you about Facebook’s impact on the upcoming Cambodian election?
I believe there is momentum in social media growth. I was recently in Malaysia and met opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who has gained tremendous support, making the opposition win the popular vote although getting fewer seats than the ruling party. The opposition’s winning of the popular vote was in large part due to the help from the Internet and Facebook. We are not at the same level in Cambodia because the number of Internet users is still small. But it is increasing fast. From the latest data I have, there are over 1 million Facebook users.

You were recently quoted by a news organization as saying that you plan to announce the results from polling stations live on Facebook. Can you give further details?
Once we get the results from a ballot count at each polling stations, we will immediately make it public on [Facebook], YouTube. That way, we can immediately calculate the results nationwide and document the accurate count. In the election five years ago, when there was no Facebook or barely any smartphones, we couldn’t follow the results as closely as that time. Then they could change and manipulate the numbers at will. This time there will be transparency in the vote count, as we can immediate record and publicize the numbers.

Even though you can reach your voters via Facebook, do you have any updates on a possible return to Cambodia before the election?
If the upcoming election were legitimate, free and fair by international standards, I would return immediately. But if this election is just a joke, there is no need for me to be there.

10 Cambodia Topics to Watch in 2013

KNY13 Wat Brooklyn Sophatography (1 of 1)

Happy Cambodian new year 2013, year of the Snake!

Here are ten broad developments in 2013 that I think Cambodia observers should watch out for. They are not necessarily in order of priority. I will be revisiting these topics separately in the coming weeks and months.

  1. Cambodia national elections (July 28)
  2. Preah Vihear border dispute and nationalism
  3. Khmer Rouge tribunal ‘crisis’
  4. Cambodia’s growing land conflicts
  5. Hydropower and Mekong river dilemma
  6. Human rights problems and the Myanmar effect
  7. Corruption and attempts at governance reform
  8. Cambodia, China, and Asean ‘triangular’ relations
  9. Rise of digital media, youth voices, and social development
  10. Uneven economic growth and regional competitiveness

Major events in the ‘2012 Cambodian year’ that will likely have an impact on 2013 developments:

  • Death of King Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodia’s ‘father’ for decades
  • Death of Ieng Sary, former Khmer Rouge foreign minister
  • Cambodian performance as chair of Asean in 2012 and the South China Sea disagreement
  • Shrinking press freedom in traditional media space
  • Opening up and early democratization of Myanmar (Burma)
  • US President Barack Obama visit to Phnom Penh

*I may be updating some of topic as necessary.*

Proposed Dam a Mystery, Concern to Kratie Locals

A fishing boat floats on the Mekong river at Sambor in Cambodia's Kratie Provice, a site chosen for a proposed 18-kilometer hydro-dam. (Sophat Soeung/VOA Khmer)

A fishing boat floats on the Mekong river at Sambor in Cambodia’s Kratie Provice, a site chosen for a proposed 18-kilometer hydro-dam. (Sophat Soeung/VOA Khmer)

Original article: Sophat Soeung, VOA Khmer, September 17, 2010

KRATIE, CAMBODIA —Later this month, a major report assessing the pros and cons of 11 proposed mainstream hydro-dams in the lower Mekong region will be publicized by the Mekong River Commission. The report will include information about two hydro-dams across the Mekong River in Kratie and Stung Treng provinces.

Although no decision has been made by the Cambodian government on the proposals, local people know little about the plans and are concerned their voices will be left out.

Sours Ve, a 38-year-old farmer and guest house operator in Sambor district, is among them. On a recent morning, she said goodbye to a group of tourists from the US, who had staid with her under a home stay system. The community-based tourism project has boosted her annual income, but she says she’s worried she’ll lose her home if a dam is built across the river here.

In 2007, a Chinese survey team arrived at her house and placed a concrete marker on her property. Were the megadam to go forward, it will fall directly across her property, creating behind it a 86-kilometer-long reservoir.

“I asked them what they were surveying, and they told me that they were going to build a hydrodam, and they put in this post on my land,” she said, standing over the marker behind her wooden stilt house after the tourists had gone.

“We learned that this was a study by a hydrodam construction company, but whether they will build the dam or not, we don’t know,” she said. “And our people started to worry, not knowing when the dam will be built.”

Government officials say it is premature for anyone to worry about a dam here. They say the 18-kilometer dam that has been proposed for Sambor is only one of several options they will discuss in coming meetings.

The proposed dam, currently being studied by China Southern Power Grid, is one of 11 dams being considered by lower Mekong countries Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. Experts say these dams can be more problematic than their upper Mekong cousins, because down here, the land is flat, which require giant dams and reservoirs.

Critics say the dams will do more than put people like Sours Ve off their land. They can also be damaging to fisheries and the river’s ecology. In Sambor district, there is little information, but plenty of concern.

“We heard rumors that if it is built, it will be massive, and 56 meters tall,” said Sours Ve, who recently traveled to Phnom Penh to learn more about the project and to Ratanakkiri province to see the effects of a Vietnamese dam on the Sesan river.

Locals on a Mekong inland at Sambor, Kratie province see off foreign tourists. A proposed mega hydrodam at the site would completely inundate the island if constructions go ahead. (Sophat Soeung/VOA Khmer)

Locals on a Mekong inland at Sambor, Kratie province see off foreign tourists. A proposed mega hydrodam at the site would completely inundate the island if constructions go ahead. (Sophat Soeung/VOA Khmer)

Locals on a Mekong inland at Sambor, Kratie province see off foreign tourists. A proposed mega hydrodam at the site would completely inundate the island if constructions go ahead.

She is among the most informed people in her community.

“We know that if the project goes ahead, we’ll have to relocate,” she said. “And we locals became worried because we don’t know when they’ll come, and no one can give us an answer.”

Ith Praing, a secretary of state for the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy, said concerns like these are so far unfounded. Sambor’s potential for a dam has been studied since at least 1964, he said, so this is only the latest study.

“And up until now we haven’t made any decision on the proposal, pending [a more comprehensive] study, to decide whether there is really hydropower potential and what the [negative] impacts are,” he said.

Kratie Governor Kham Khoeun told VOA Khmer he was aware of the study, but not the extent of it. He agreed that concerns right now are premature because studies on ongoing.

At the Sambor district fish market, which according to maps would sit just below the proposed megadam, little is known about the study.

A 33-year-old fish monger who gave her name as Adik said she’d never heard of it.
Nearby, 54-year-old  vendor Nhoung Sokkhim said she’d seen the Chinese during the field study in 2007, but knew little more.

“I saw the Chinese come with their machines, but I haven’t seen any construction,” she said. “I only saw them bringing metallic devices further up near the pagoda. There was no explanation of what is going on. No one knows, not even the local authorities.”

Indeed, Sambor District Chief Heng Sotha told VOA Khmer all he knew about the proposal came from local people.

“I am unaware of the details of the plan,” he said. “There are no official documents informing me about this.”

Ith Praing said there was no need to worry that people’s input would not be part of the decision. The government plans to take the proposal’s negative impacts very seriously, he said, adding that local authorities have in the past been invited to Phnom Penh to discuss the dam.

As proposed, according to a draft report of the Mekong River Commission, the Sambor hydrodam would flood 620 square kilometers, including 3,369 hectares of agricultural land and be operational by 2020.

For Sours Ve, the trade-off won’t be worth it.

“These days, we no longer want electricity if it means having to relocate,” she said.
“It’s possible for us to move, but what about the bones of our ancestors? They’ll be flooded, and nothing will remain.”