Sopheap Chak

Riding the wave of change in Cambodia

Author: Sopheap Chak (page 1 of 15)

Mobile technology gives Cambodians a voice

By Sopheap Chak

Published on UPI Asia Online, April 23, 2010

Niigata, Japan — Cambodia: The Rise of Citizen Media via Mobile Phone

Mobile phones have gained in popularity since 2000, even at the bottom of the economic pyramid, due to their affordability and indispensability. This is especially true in Cambodia, the first country in the world in which the number of mobile phone users surpassed the number using fixed landlines.

There are nearly 4 million mobile users, representing 26 percent of the population, according to the United Nations Development Program’s 2009 report, “Cambodia Country Competitiveness.”

Even though the population size and penetration rate of mobile phones in Cambodia are much lower than in neighboring Thailand and Vietnam, which have penetration rates over 80 percent, the Cambodian market seems to be booming, with nine service providers to cover 14 million people.

Thailand, with a population of 67 million, has only seven providers, while Vietnam has eight operators for its 87 million people, according to a report in Economics Today.

Cambodia’s excess of service providers may not be viable in the long term, but the competition has lowered prices and brought greater customer satisfaction.

Thanks to low prices, mobile phones have become indispensable in Cambodia, preferred over traditional communications including landlines and the postal service. With poor transportation infrastructure and a shortage of electricity coverage, mobile phones are the most convenient appliance, offering a range of services including radio, music, videos, and even Internet access.

Interestingly, mobile banking service was recently introduced to Cambodia. Now rural Cambodians can make low-cost payments and money transfers from their mobile phones.

Beyond that, mobile phones have had a great impact on mobilizations and collective actions, during the election campaign for example. Political parties use SMS text messaging, the cheapest and most effective way of widely spreading their message, for their political campaigns. Also civil organizations that monitor elections use SMS to communicate among themselves.

Probably due to its accessibility and vast penetration, text messaging in Cambodia was banned during the last day of the Commune Council Election in 2007 by the National Election Committee. Though opposition parties and human rights groups claimed the ban would hamper the right to freedom of expression, the committee claimed the ban was justified by the law prohibiting campaigning on election day or the day before, and it would prevent parties from using text messaging to mobilize rallies, thereby ensuring a quiet environment for voters.

Surprisingly, SMS text messaging partly contributed to the 2008 election victory of the ruling party, which had supported the earlier ban of text messaging. This is because a nationalistic movement coincided with the election campaign, due to a border dispute between Cambodia and Thailand over the Preah Vihear temple. This generated political approval of the government, which publicly denounced any invasion of Cambodian territory. Mobile phone text messages circulated saying, “Khmers love Khmer and should boycott anything Thai or with Thai writing on it.”

Another side effect of mobile technology is that it mobilizes people for human rights activism and social causes through SMS text messaging. When human rights activists were being arrested in Cambodia in late 2005 and early 2006, for example, human rights activists used SMS text messaging to mobilize public support to demand the release of those arrested and freedom of expression.

In other Asian countries SMS text messaging has become an effective means of disseminating information and mobilizing people. The spread of information about the 2007 Saffron Revolution in Burma was possible thanks to mobile technology; it led to a global mobilization to free Burma from human rights abuses.

During that time, a group of Cambodians wearing red shirts gathered to protest in front of the Burmese Embassy in Phnom Penh. Thanks to the widespread use of mobile text messaging and blogs, people around the world could join the same cause at the same time.

This trend, the rise of citizen media, is especially important in countries like Cambodia, where people who otherwise would have no voice are encouraged to disseminate information, organize events, and join social causes through mobile phone communication.

(Chak Sopheap is a graduate student of peace studies at the International University of Japan. She runs a blog, www.sopheapfocus.com, in which she shares her impressions of both Japan and her homeland, Cambodia. She was previously advocacy officer of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. ©Copyright Chak Sopheap.)

"Development" does not justify land grabs

By Sopheap Chak,

Published on UPI Asia Online

Niigata, Japan — The problem of forced evictions and land grabs is growing worse in Cambodia, leading to violence due to deep dissatisfaction over existing resettlement schemes. Some 133,000 residents of Phnom Penh, or 11 percent of the city’s population of 1.2 million, have been evicted since 1990.

According to Amnesty International, there were 27 instances of forced urban evictions reported in 2008, affecting some 23,000 people. A further 150,000 are currently at risk of eviction, including approximately 70,000 in Phnom Penh.

Amnesty International reported that several urban communities had been evicted from their homes and relocated to areas that lacked the most basic infrastructure. Other communities facing eviction orders are crying out for legal and humanitarian support from the government and civil society groups.

This phenomenon is not unique to Cambodia; it occurs in both developed and developing countries where poor communities or informal settlements and slums are often targeted. People are evicted to make way for development and infrastructure projects, large international events like the Olympic games and urban redevelopment and beautification initiatives. Sometimes political conflict, ethnic cleansing and war are factors. However, “development” is the most common justification in all countries, including Cambodia.

Surprisingly, almost all regions have experienced forced evictions including Africa, Europe, the Americas and the Asia-Pacific region. According to a global survey by the Center on Housing Rights and Evictions, covering 80 countries from 1998 to 2008, more than 18 million people were victims of forced evictions. Of this number, 47 percent occurred in Asia and the Pacific, followed by 44 percent in Africa, 8 percent in the Americas and 1 percent in Europe. The data showed that nearly 2 million people face eviction annually.

Cambodia ranks first among Asian countries in the number of evictions. These occur because of five key factors: 1) illegal construction and occupation of the land; 2) city development and beautification; 3) property market forces, gentrification and private development; 4) the granting of economic land concessions; and 5) the granting of social land concessions.

While the government justifies evictions for the sake of beautifying and developing the cities, there are many eviction cases where violence and legal abuses have occurred while little or no actual development has taken place. Strikingly, most of the areas that have been cleared to make way for development projects have been turned over to private companies owned or chaired by high-ranking officials and affiliated powerful businessmen.

Many areas cleared for the sake of “development” are yet to be developed. For example, the Sombok Chap area, from which more than 6,000 people were evicted in 2006, is still undeveloped. The same is true of the Monivong Hospital site, from which 168 families were forcibly evicted to make way for commercial development. This area is now being used for a parking lot and carwash.

There have been a few model resettlement cases, like that of Veng Sreng, where people were given enough time and allowed to choose their place of relocation. In this case there was close collaboration among the authorities, the community and local and international organizations in planning and coordinating a resettlement scheme. This positive approach meets the needs of the people and the government, while addressing the government poverty reduction program and advancing the millennium development goals.

In cases where the government urgently needs an area for development or investment projects, this model should be applied so that human security risks are avoided. The government’s current pursuit of development has often brought legal abuses and violations of peoples’ rights and produced little or no actual development. Thus it is important that the government reevaluate its development criteria.

Different people may define development differently. In traditional economic terms, it is strictly based on the capacity of a national economy valued in terms of gross national product. However, development as introduced by Michael. Todaro and Stepen C. Smith must “represent the whole gamut of change by which an entire social system, tuned to the diverse basic needs and desires of individuals and social groups within that system, moves away from a condition of life widely perceived as unsatisfactory toward a situation or condition of life regarded as materially and spiritually better.”

This concept includes three basic components of development: 1) Sustenance, or meeting basic needs including food, shelter, health and protection; 2) Self-esteem, or a sense of worth and self-respect; and 3) Freedom from servitude, including access to choices with minimal external constraints.

Based on these criteria, development must bring about certain goals. It must increase sustenance or life-sustaining goods including food, shelter, health and protection. It must raise living standards including the provision of more jobs, better education and greater attention to cultural and human values, contributing to greater individual and national self-esteem. And it must expand the range of economic and social choices.

In this context, the Cambodian and other governments that justify forced evictions for the sake of “national development” must reevaluate their development agenda in order to faithfully address the core values and objectives of development.

(Chak Sopheap is a graduate student of peace studies at the International University of Japan. She runs a blog, www.sopheapfocus.com, in which she shares her impressions of both Japan and her homeland, Cambodia. She was previously advocacy officer of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. ©Copyright Chak Sopheap.)

Can Cambodia Adopt 2010 World's Richest Man Record?

By Sopheap Chak

While the world is facing financial downturn, richest men on the earth have been still recorded. My interest to the 2010 World’s Richest Man record is the Mexican Carlos Slim who also broke the record for 2007 when i compared him to a well-known Cambodian richest man, Tycoon Kith Meng. My commentators debated whether my assumption about Kit Meng as the Cambodian richest man is corrected or should be someone else or our Prime Minister.

With this debate and current development of draft law on Anti-Corruption which have been adopted in the National Assembly this Thursday, the Cambodian’s richest man record can be prevailed since the law outlines for asset declaration among high ranking officials and civil society leaders (this asset declaration has draw much discussion on why civil society leaders are also subjected to this declaration). However, this premise is questionable as key proposals for independence of Anti-Corruption Commission and publicity of asset declaration have been ignored.

If transparency and Anti-Corruption is the aim of Cambodian government, i hope the detail of asset declaration either put by the Anti-Corruption Commission or any agency can be made publicly.

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