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.)

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