Water Festival in front of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. (undated, taken from web)
Cambodia’s traditional Water and Moon Festival or “Bon Om Touk” (បុណ្យអុំទូក អកអំបុក សំពះព្រះខែ), formerly Water Festival, is celebrated in the capital Phnom Penh and provincial towns every November to mark, amongst other things, the end of the rainy season, the reversal to normal course of the Tonle Sap river, and to honor the imperial navy of the Khmer Empire. Although likely rooted in ancient Angkor, the modern tradition is primarily focused at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, whose location at the confluence of four rivers (Chaktomouk), makes the royal capital ideal for provincial boats to float to the venue of celebration with ease. Please note that Cambodian Water Festival is not to be confused with traditional new year Water Festival in Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar which falls in April.
Carvings of Khmer fighting Cham Warriors, Bayon temple (travelsort.com)
As a native of Phnom Penh, I grew up either liking or hating the crowds that converge in there. I have always heard and seen on TV some of the same though smaller celebrations in Cambodia’s smaller towns and in the former Khmer provinces in the Mekong Delta of southern Vietnam. But with the boat races in Phnom Penh cancelled for many years following the tragic stampede in 2010 and the advance of social media seems to highlight the many and equally colorful events happening beyond Phnom Penh. These are perhaps reason for Phnom Penhois to, once again, enjoy Bon Om Touk, away from home.
Lowell, USA (August 15): [Click date to Facebook as post embed not working]
Please join us on August 15th 2015 from 9am to 4:30pm. We have boat races, live entertainment authentic food, merchandise and information booths.500 Pawtucket BlvdLowell, MA(978) 995-2362
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.
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 that 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)
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)
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.
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.
ASEAN countries’ foreign ministers join their hands during a photo session at the 45th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Foreign Ministers’ Plus three Meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Tuesday, July 10, 2012.
WASHINGTON – As Cambodia prepares to host a series of top-level meetings in Phnom Penh next week, questions remain over how it will approach major issues such as the South China Sea.
Cambodia was heavily criticized for its behavior in an Asean meeting in July that ended in a deadlock among Southeast Asian ministers over language about the South China Sea, which sees overlapping claims among several Asean states and China. Cambodia was seen as furthering the interests of China, a major donor and investor in the country, ahead of those of regional partners.
Analysts now say next week’s meeting will be a test of whether Cambodia will continue to act counter to the interests of Asean.
Chheang Vannarith, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, told VOA Khmer that Asean leaders need to have “one voice” in their discussions with China, even if the bloc doesn’t have a conflict resolution mechanism yet for disputes over the sea.
“We are only a mechanism to help compromise and to prevent escalation of the conflict,” he said.
That means any code of conduct agreed upon within Asean will not live up to the expectations of some.
Nevertheless, Asean leaders need to have a thorough discussion ahead of the Asean summit next week to understand the positions of each of its members ahead of talks with China.
“I think Cambodia has learned its lesson as is currently working its diplomatic skills to facilitate in-depth discussions between countries in the region on the issue,” he said.
Chheang Vannarith and other analysts doubt that next week’s meetings will bring about a code of conduct on the South China Sea.
Ernie Bower, who heads the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington, told VOA Khmer that China overplayed its hand by pushing Cambodia in July.
“They put a lot of pressure on Cambodia,” he said.
This caused Foreign Minister Hor Namhong to break with tradition, he said.
As a result, for the first time in decades, Asean ministers were unable to draft a joint statement announcing the results of the meeting. This was due to a disagreement over language about the South China Sea, officials said at the time. The two countries most affected were the Philippines and Vietnam, who have come close to conflict with China over the sea and are the two most outspoken claimants to its waterways, islands and resources.
“I think what we can expect in November is a more moderate position by China,” he said. “I don’t think they’ll push Cambodia as hard, and I think the Chinese have realized that their very aggressive approach to Asean, trying to manipulate Cambodia to pull issues like South China Sea out of the discussion, is not going to be useful.”
Bower called China’s approach to the issue in July “outdated.” “That’s not the way the China-Asean relationship would prosper,” he said. “I think there probably is recognition among the Chinese that talking about the South China Sea is something that has to be done at the East Asia Summit. If the East Asia Summit won’t talk about the most important security issues that involve the countries that are involved of the day, then it’s not going to be relevant, it’s not going to be a sustained leadership forum with high value.”
Even so, there is unlikely to be a final code of conduct for the sea that all parties will agree on by November, he said. China is in the midst of selecting new leadership. “So you’ll have a new Chinese leader coming to Cambodia, freshly minted,” he said. “And I think the Chinese will probably try to sort of do no harm.”
However, Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of Chulalongkorn University’s Institute of Security and International Studies, told the Voice of America in Bangkok that China might also go the other way. The election of a new leader in China, part a major shift in China’s next generation of communist leaders, could mean that China will want to appear strong at the East Asia Summit and other meetings, he said.
“So some drama is in store, because China will apply a lot of pressure” on other countries, he said. “Remember that China has some domestic concerns now; they’re going through a leadership transition. It’s not a good time for the Chinese leadership to appear weak.”
Kao Kim Hourn, secretary of state for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said the South China Sea will likely be discussed at meetings next week, though it is unclear how much. “Previously, Asean leaders have raised this issue in this kind of agenda setting,” he told VOA Khmer.
He downplayed the importance of the failed meetings in July.
“Within the framework of Asean, it is a tradition that we can agree to disagree on various issues,” he said. “We’ve seen that as chair, Cambodia has tried to solve many challenges, especially sensitive issues.” Some sensitive topics cannot be put into joint statements, he said. “Because generally if we cannot agree on something, we cannot include it in a joint document.”
The upcoming summit will include more mutual understanding amid Asean states, he said. “Whether you want it or not, Asean will have central unity and solidarity and will approach every issue on the basis of friendship and cooperation.”
Thousands of mourners gather at the gates of the Royal Palace minutes after the coffin of former king Norodom Sihanouk arrived in Phnom Penh October 17, 2012. Tens of thousands poured into Cambodia’s capital to witness the procession on Wednesday.
WASHINGTON DC – Former king Norodom Sihanouk, who died in China on Monday, came to the throne at the age of 19. But he grew to become the most prominent national figure during decades of Cambodia’s turbulent politics.
Those who have closely watched his politics over the years say that the former king’s greatest legacy can be found in the early years of his rule and his continued role as a symbol of unity during troubled times. But they also point to some of his darker legacies, including his support for the Khmer Rouge at a critical turning point in Cambodian history.
Julio Jeldres, Sihanouk’s official biographer, told VOA the former king built modern Cambodia from what had been a feudal monarchy. But his most lasting legacy was the winning of independence for his country from colonial France in 1953.
“He is the symbol of Cambodian independence and unity,” Jeldres told VOA. “He managed to keep this country at peace, while the Vietnam War was raging next door.”
Sihanouk, who was nearly 90, died in Beijing early Monday after a heart attack. He had gradually retreated from public life after passing the throne to his son, Norodom Sihamoni, in 2004.
David Chandler, an author and prominent scholar of modern Cambodian history, said Sihanouk dominated, “or you might even say smothered,” Cambodia’s early political scene.
“He felt himself in some ways to be the embodiment of the country…that the spirit of Cambodia presided in him as king,” Chandler told VOA. “He felt he had a special endowment to represent the Cambodian people. He combined this with a deep and very sincere love of ordinary Cambodians, which is a characteristic you won’t find too frequently among the Cambodian rulers.”
Sihanouk will be ill remembered by some for his support of the Khmer Rouge insurgency, between his ouster by coup in 1970 and the regime’s overthrow of the Lon Nol government, in 1975.
“But he didn’t know what they were going to do when they came to power,” Chandler said. “And when they did come to power, they locked him up for three years, and their cruel and inhumane policies I think shocked him and upset him.”
SAN FRANCISCO – Tensions between Thailand and Cambodia have now moved beyond Preah Vihearand become increasingly more complicated. Yet, things may as well be straightforward, or so it seems from this very insightful piece by the Asia Times’ Craig Guthrie:
Hun Sen’s main domestic opponent says the premier’s overtures to Thaksin are not motivated by scoring political points or a desire to uphold Khmer nationalism, but instead are due to pressure being exerted on him by Vietnam, the invading nation which initially installed him as premier in 1985 and which the opposition still claims has influence over the CCP government.
Sam Rainsy has called the argument between Thaksin and Abhisit a “political game” to turn the Cambodian public’s attention to the west, in the direction of Thailand, while ignoring the east, towards Vietnam. Antagonism among Cambodians – over inward migration and alleged land grabbing – is much higher towards Vietnam, which occupied Cambodia between 1979 and 1989, than towards Thailand, which has made less controversial service-sector inroads into the country.
“There is no doubt in my mind that Hun Sen is trying to show that he is the defender of the national interests of Cambodia and that Thailand is the real enemy of Cambodia and not Vietnam,” said United States-based Cambodian economist Naranhkiri Tith.
Although the above analysis may not fully explain the current “political game,” it does compellingly show that the current ‘nationalist double standard’ exercised by the CPP government is partly rooted in the Party’s owning its existence to Vietnam’s support as well as its distrust of Thailand during the 1980s and 1990s Cambodian Cold War politics. Nevertheless, it is likely that the motivations behind the current moves are as much the CCP’s different historic relations with the two neighbors as they are a need to uphold Khmer nationalism in the eyes of an increasingly changing domestic demography.
With the memories and legacy of the Khmer Rouge–the demise of which is a major source of the CCP’s political legitimacy–gradually fading away, particularly amongst young and educated Cambodians, Khmer nationalism is increasingly becoming a substitute tool for political and moral legitimacy. Post-Khmer Rouge-born Cambodians may already make up the majority of the voting population and certainly will in the near future. To this audience, the destruction of the Khmer Rouge means little, if anything, compared to job security, better education, better health care, or particularly post-conflict national pride and nation-(re)building.
Khmer nationalism has traditionally included the centuries-old process of ‘othering’–the creation of group enemies–of the neighboring Thais and Vietnamese to produce a sense and defense of ‘Khmer-ness’. With some exceptions, politicized animosities against the two more powerful neighbors have often been an unbalanced either-or affair; that is, either turning more East (against Vietnam) or West (against Thailand) depending on what Cambodian regime is in power and which foreign patron it is ‘indebted’ to. Such animosity is practically non-existent against neighboring Laos, a country similarly squeezed between the two powerful neighbors. In contemporary Cambodian political context, is seems likely that more problems would arise with Thailand than Vietnam if the CCP rules, while the opposite–more antagonistic policies towards Vietnam and warmer relations with Thailand– would ensue should the current opposition party come to power. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s recent political stunt at the Vietnamese border and the consequences thereof highlight what can be expected of Cambodia’s domestic-cum-neighborly politics in the coming years.
As a matter of nationalist politics, the current ruling CCP has few other choices than to exploit its historical distrust of Thailand. Nevertheless, and perhaps surprisingly, it is also trying to counter any perceived double standard in order to be seen as the ‘real guarantor’ of the nation’s independence in the eyes of its people. It comes as no surprise, then, that Cambodia’s information minister recently led a Cambodian delegation to what is known by Khmers as ‘Kampuchea Krom’ or ‘Lower Cambodia’ in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta territory to showcase that the CPP also cares about ethnic Khmers there and can also ‘tackle’ Vietnam, although in a much more amicable way.
What Guthrie describes as “domestic political spat that has spilled over into international relations” and which initially was applied to Thai internal politics in relation to the Preah Vihear dispute and now also suitably applied to Cambodian politics, is potentially very destructive politics that comes at a heavy price for peoples living along the Cambodia-Thailand and Cambodia-Vietnam borders as well as a blow to the ASEAN spirit altogether. Concerned politicians should keep these consequences in mind now that it is their capacity to reconstruct a better politics for their country and the region.