One Year into Post-Sihanouk Cambodia

A portrait of Norodom Sihanouk is hoisted in front of the Royal Palace as a crowd of about 1,000 people gather ahead of the arrival of the King Father's body in October 2012. (Lauren Crothers/The Cambodia Daily)

A portrait of Norodom Sihanouk is hoisted in front of the Royal Palace as a crowd of about 1,000 people gather ahead of today’s arrival of the King Father’s body in October 2012. (Lauren Crothers/The Cambodia Daily)

October 15 this week marked the first anniversary of the death of Cambodia’s former King Norodom Sihanouk, who died last year in Beijing of heart attack at the age of 89. While the media has focused extensively on the subsequent royal funeral, and to a lesser extent the obituary and the legacy of the former monarch, there has been less focus on the immediate implication of his death to the current political culture of Cambodia. It appears that the death of the revered King less than one year before Cambodia’s general election – and thus the absence of a long-standing unifying figure around a critical political period – has helped created an environment for ‘forced’ political compromise in post-election crisis.

The death of this most influential Cambodian politician might have impacted the population and political parties in pre-election months in the following ways:

  • In the months leading up to the election, the royal funeral and mass mobilization of people to participate in the ceremony had been unseen in the country’s last decade. This mass mobilization both offline and online, followed by unprecedented student protests, help set the stage for a highly active election campaign just months later and particularly ensure the political coming of age of the post-war generation. This boost appeared to have favored the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) more than the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
  • For the opposition movement, the death also meant the end of any viable royalist contestants in the election, therefore centralizing the role of the Cambodian National Rescue Party as the sole opposition movement.
  • For the Mr. Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), the death of the revered King meant a short-term opportunity to capitalize on King Sihanouk’s popularity, particularly among young voters. Yet, despite his effort to closely associate himself with the revered monarch – even to the chagrin of some royals – and bridge Sihanouk’s legacy with his own by throwing a lavish royal funeral ceremony, Mr. Hun Sen failed to substantially garner youth votes.

The absence of the revered monarch as a unifying figure in times of political crisis – in the eyes of the ordinary Cambodians and politicians alike – seemed to help ensure a degree of stability before and after the election by restraining all actors’ potential moves. Sihanouk’s son, current King Norodom Sihamoni, has yet to play the imposing role his father did. Furthermore, as Cambodia is coming out of its longest period of peace in decades, unlike in past post-election periods, no political rival wants to be seen as the starter of violence. Thus, despite the opposition protests and growing tensions, there has been relatively low degree of the outright violence seen in past elections and both sides seem eager to start negotiations. While it is premature to view this as a degree of political maturing, the nation is entering rather unfamiliar territory.

The election results – while still disputed by the opposition CNRP – clearly shows the country politically split between the two parties, meaning a much reduced legitimacy for the ruling CPP and Mr. Hun Sen. Mr. Hun Sen’s attempts to build a personal cult based on the larger-than-live persona of King Sihanouk is therefore shaken and the CPP faces its greatest challenge yet to reform ahead of the next elections. On the whole, however, this means that Cambodia is entering a new era where political legitimacy is changing in the eyes of a changing populace, with decreasing focus on charisma or personality and more on party policies and delivery. In this new status quo, the ruling CPP and opposition CNRP parties alike will have to work harder on policy specifics to meet the rising expectations of the electorate ahead of the 2018 elections.

On the inauguration of the statue of the former King, there is again dispute over access to the royal ceremony – thus traditional legitimacy. Only time will tell if history will look back at the death of former King Sihanouk as the end of an era in Cambodia’s political history or merely a minor point in the era of Mr. Hun Sen.

A nice piece by the Phnom Penh Post on how the former King is remembered one year on.

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.

How Google Figured Out Khmer Translation

A screenshot of Google Translate page displaying the translation of "VOA" in both Khmer and English.

A screenshot of Google Translate page displaying the translation of “VOA” in both Khmer and English.

Sophat Soeung, VOA Khmer, May 24, 2013

WASHINGTON — Editor’s note: Around Cambodian New Year last month, Google launched its online translation service for the Khmer language, making it the 66th language to be translatable on its service. Google says the launch is primarily aimed at making a vast amount of non-Khmer content on the Internet more accessible to Khmer speakers. Divon Lan, product manager of Google’s Next Wave Emerging Markets program, recently spoke to VOA Khmer’s Sophat Soeung by phone to explain what it means for the average Cambodian.

Listen to Full Interview: Divon Lan talks about Google Translate Khmer

You didn’t actually use translators to build this system. How did you actually build Khmer translation on Google?

Google Translate is actually machine translation. Basically, the way this works is we look at all the Khmer data that is out there, on the Web and so on. And we figure out automatically the language model. And that allows us to translate not only from English to Khmer but actually from any language to Khmer. Today there are 66 languages on Google Translate, so, for example, you can go to a Chinese website or a French website and get it translated to Khmer and understand what it says and vice versa. Foreigners from many countries can read Khmer text translated into their languages. Now bear in mind that the machine translation is still not at the level of human translation. If you use Google Translate, what we’re aiming for is that you will be able to get the general idea of what a piece of text says. It won’t be a word-to-word translation. That’s the downside.
At VOA Khmer we have two language websites, one in English and one in Khmer. Would that contribute to Google Translation because they basically have the same content? Is that the idea?

That’s the idea. We look at all the content that’s out there th​at is of that nature in two languages and looking at millions and millions of pages, and we try to figure out what the translation should be automatically using algorithms rather than humans.

A Cambodian student uses Google's new Khmer online translation service between Khmer and French. Google Translate released Khmer as its 66th language on its online translation service around Cambodian new year, 2013. (Courtesy of Divon Lan)

A Cambodian student uses Google’s new Khmer online translation service between Khmer and French. Google Translate released Khmer as its 66th language on its online translation service around Cambodian new year, 2013. (Courtesy of Divon Lan)

Khmer is the 66th language on Google Translate. It’s actually the last language of the (Lower) Mekong region, even after Lao. Is that because of the complexity of the Khmer language that it was released later on?

Yes, it’s partly because of the complexity. It’s partly because to create this machine, the “translation language model,” we need a fairly large amount of text available out there on the web. And Khmer is still, you know, the amount of text compared to other languages is still small if you compare it to other regional languages like Thai or Vietnamese. The amount of content in those languages is much bigger. We wanted to make sure that the quality meets our launch level, which is basically that you’d be able to understand more or less what an article is about although that translation is not perfect. The translation quality will improve over time. So the more people use it, the more people suggest corrections, and over time the quality will improve.

Actually the one language we launched just prior to Khmer was Lao, as you’ve mentioned. That’s also one of our most recent launches. And these languages are very similar in many of the difficulties that we face in translating. One of them is the fact that in Khmer and in Lao and in Thai, you don’t use white spaces to have a gap between words. So one of the challenges is just looking at Khmer text and figuring out where the word boundaries are, and the same challenge exists in Lao as well.

When you write in a language like English, you use a space between every word, whereas in Khmer the words are just stuck to each other. While a human reading Khmer can very easily tell the words apart, it’s actually quite difficult for a computer to understand where one word ends and a new word starts. One thing that makes it easier, by the way, is that Khmer has a unique script. So when we see Khmer letters in a document, we know for sure that’s Khmer, compared to Latin alphabets. Like you see a text, you’re not always sure if this is French or Italian or Spanish. It can be anything; they all use the same letters. For Khmer, if it is in Khmer, it’s Khmer. There’s no question. So that part makes it easy. And that’s the same for Lao and Thai.

Divon Lan, product manager of Google’s Next Wave Emerging Markets program, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. (Courtesy of Divon Lan)

Divon Lan, product manager of Google’s Next Wave Emerging Markets program, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. (Courtesy of Divon Lan)

How long did it actually take you to build the Khmer translation and what was the most challenging aspect of doing that?

It took us a few good months, maybe even a year. And the challenges were really getting to a good enough level of quality, given the amount of Khmer text out there on the web is still relatively small. An additional challenge is that we found that actually people write Khmer words in many different ways. So there are a lot of people that don’t use a standard dictionary way to write a word. They just write it phonetically, and then we see many variants of different words, which of course adds another interesting technical challenge for us.

Who did you envision as your audience?

Our audience is primarily Cambodian. What we’ve seen in Cambodia is that the young and educated people in Phnom Penh are all using the Internet. But if you think about that, that’s only 5 percent or so of the population of the country. You have 90 to 95 percent of the people that are not using the Internet. Now there are many reasons why people are not using the Internet, like the cost of devices and things like that. But one of the top reasons in Cambodia is Khmer. Most Cambodians speak only Khmer, and I think it’s our duty as a technology industry—Google and other companies—to provide the world’s information to Cambodians in their language. The vast majority of content on the web is not in Khmer. It’s in English or other languages, and we think it’s critically important to give access to that information to all of the world’s information to Khmer-speakers, in their language. That’s the motivation here.

Some in our audience have asked if the Google Khmer translation is available on mobile.

Yes, it is.

A screenshot of Google Maps of Cambodia, displaying in the Khmer language on Friday, May 24, 2013.

A screenshot of Google Maps of Cambodia, displaying in the Khmer language on Friday, May 24, 2013.

Google Khmer was launched more than two weeks ago. What feedback you have gotten so far?

I think the feedback is extremely enthusiastic. I’m following the English-language media in Cambodia, and thanks to Google Translate I now can also follow the Khmer-language media, since I’m not a Khmer-speaker. I’m very excited to see the level of excitement out there. Obviously, there are also comments about the quality, which is to be expected, but I think everybody recognizes that this is really a big step for the Internet in Cambodia.

So this is the early beginning for Khmer Translation. What is the plan? What’s coming up related to this?

This is what we call an “Alpha version,” which means it is the very very first early version of that translation. We hope the quality will improve a lot. We’re investing more and more in Khmer. For example, Google Maps already shows place names in Khmer language. This happened a few months ago. I can’t provide specific details on future plans, but I can say that we’re definitely investing in the Khmer language, because our objective is really to get the world’s information to Cambodians. So every Cambodian—doesn’t matter their background, where they are, whether or not they speak other languages—they should be able to participate in this information revolution that we are in.

On a personal note, I’ll say that my wife is actually Khmer. And when I think about our mission in Cambodia—as Google and even as the technology industry—I always think about my mother-in-law, who is an intelligent, capable woman, but who, like most Cambodians, only speaks Khmer. And because of that, she is not able to access the Internet, access the information that’s out there. And it’s my personal mission to solve that problem. My mother-in-law should be able to use the Internet just like anybody else, in her own language.

Analyst Worries Democracy May Be Sidelined for Asean ‘Security’

Chinese and ASEAN leaders attend the 15th ASEAN-China Summit in Phnom Penh's Peace Palace, Cambodia, November 19, 2012. (VOA Khmer/Sophat Soeung)

Chinese and ASEAN leaders attend the 15th ASEAN-China Summit in Phnom Penh’s Peace Palace, Cambodia, November 19, 2012. (VOA Khmer/Sophat Soeung)

Sophat Soeung, VOA Khmer, April 13, 2013

WASHINGTON, DC – The adoption of the Asean Human Rights Declaration in Phnom Penh last year marked a major milestone for advocates of Asean democracy. But a prominent Southeast Asian security expert says that while democracy is important for security in Southeast Asia, getting the region’s democracy agenda back on track remains uncertain in the near term.

The recent opening up of Burma, also known as Myanmar, has made some observers see promise of greater democracy in Southeast Asia. But some worry that despite this attention, traditional security issues, like the South China Sea, might sideline the region’s democratization agenda in coming years.

Rizal Sukma, executive director at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta, Indonesia, told an audience at the East West Center in Washington last week that the current global geopolitical climate is starting to affect how Southeast Asian countries prioritize their foreign policies.

Countries in the region are having to choose between their core values and their practical interests, he said. “My fear is that most of us will choose interest, rather than values,” he said. “And then we can say goodbye to democracy as the agenda of regional cooperation in Southeast Asia.”

Human rights and democracy were founding principles of Asean, a group that puts together democracies, constitutional monarchies and communist governments. But Indonesia, the bloc’s largest member, has been pushing for greater democratic reform since 2003.

Burma’s reforms in the democratization process have stirred some signs of optimism, but Sukma said democracy should be viewed as important regionally, as well. And that will require changes in a lot of countries.

“In a democracy, you have to open up and cannot withhold information anymore,” he said. “So it provides a lot of opportunities to actually understand each other better.”

But democracy is a tough agenda item for Asean countries, who typically have non-interference policies. It took years to adopt a Human Rights Declaration, one that rights groups have criticized as below international standards.

Katherine Southwick, an international law consultant based in Southeast Asia, told VOA Khmer via Skype that the Asean declaration is an evolving document, and while revision of some provisions will be helpful, its value will ultimately depend on implementation.

That will depend on citizens and governments, “and what kinds of measures they actually take when they are confronted with human rights abuses,” she said.

Sukma told VOA Khmer that the declaration allows governments to argue “cultural relativism” to trump universal rights norms. The declaration was a disappointment to Indonesia, the only Southeast Asian country listed as “free” by the US-based watchdog Freedom House, he said.

And though officially Indonesia welcomed the declaration at its signing in Phnom Penh last November, the country is walking a fine line between promoting a regional democratic agenda and alienating countries that might see its work as patronizing, he said.

Burma was the first Asean country to reach out directly to Indonesia for help in its democratization process, he said. Burma will now chair Asean in 2014, symbolizing the region’s struggle to put democracy as a pillar of regional security. But other issues are pressing, as well.

That kind of tension was brought to light at the November summit in Phnom Penh last year. The summit was dominated by policy arguments of the South China Sea, where Asean members have overlapping claims with China. Discussion on the rights declaration was overshadowed by that contentious issue.

Still, Sukma said Burma’s chairmanship will put democratization higher on the agenda, as the country seeks to trumpet this achievement.

Asean Summit Seen as Opportunity for a Balanced Cambodian Foreign Policy

Sophat Soeung, VOA Khmer, November 16, 2012

WASHINGTON, DC – Cambodia will host the Asean and East Asia summits in Phnom Penh next week, during which major regional security topics will be discussed amid visits by world leaders, including the US president. Ernie Bower, head of the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, recently spoke with VOA Khmer’s Soeung Sophat. Bower says the international attention that comes from the summits presents an opportunity for Prime Minister Hun Sen to demonstrate that his country has a balanced foreign policy, and will allow Cambodia to address criticism over failed Asean meetings in July and to improve its partnership with the US.

Editor’s Note: This interview was also broadcast on Cambodian News Channel (CNC) TV before the 21th Asean Summit in Phnom Penh.