Bloggers are about the same everywhere, I guess. Fractious and noisy. Exuberant, opinionated, occasionally make questionable clothing choices. Might have been considered “weird” in school. Vanguards of social revolution and change—that too. You ignore them at your own peril.
This particular motley pack of Asia bloggers convened at Build Bright University, a small college of something or another outside Siem Reap, placed in the middle of what appeared to be a loosely residential neighborhood, mixed with a small dairy-and-water-lily farm. The bloggers came from 12 Asian countries, a smattering hailing from further afield (including yours truly). Their ages ranged from 14 to in their 70s. Many were professionals, some were students, some had even achieved the holy grail of professional blogging. All fervently wanted to geek out.
Siem Reap is the small city adjacent to Angkor Wat, and is by far the most heavily touristed place in Cambodia—a fact not lost on the attendees, who gathered to watch sunsets, sunrises, and things in between at the archaeological ruins. Many of them were travel bloggers, after all. Catnip.
It is worth pointing out the disconnect between Cambodia’s ubiquitous small, naked children, lotus ponds and wooden, ramshackle homes—right outside the conference—with a cosmopolitan group of tech geeks, most sporting expensive equipment.
However: I don’t see this as some sort of fell indicator of social injustice. The fact that such a gathering is happening in Cambodia at all is, in my estimation, a remarkable indicator of social change.
Further: the Cambodian could have swiftly squashed this gathering if they so chose, but it didn’t. In fact, Cambodian Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith attended and gave out awards on Monday, the final day of the conference. Blogger and event organizer Kounila Keo told me that she ran the schedule of the event by him—including multiple named workshops on Internet freedom—and he expressed no apprehension.
Would that happen in China or Vietnam? I don’t think so.
Sadly, Cambodians seem to get very little love from the mainstream media. They have few choices: they are genocidal and backwards. They are Noble Savages who smile a lot and have not quite got the hang of industrialization, bless them. But the Cambodian bloggers I know are not content to conform to this heat-addled stereotype. They firmly believe that technology and free speech will eventually win out against the forces that are arrayed against them.
And that goes for the other Asian bloggers in attendance, many of whom reside in often-overlooked but swiftly developing nations . Did you know that Filipinos send around 2 billion text messages a day, the most in the world? Or that Indonesians are the world’s biggest users of Twitter, and have collectively created over 5 million blogs? That in only 2 years of rapid change, Myanmar is approaching three percent Internet penetration?
These are all remarkable stats. These are all somewhat little-known stats. This is why I am glad I attended Blogfest Asia 2012.
“We somehow have the perception the world only goes on in Europe and the United States, when in fact many things are happening in Southeast Asia,” observed SPIDER (Swedish Program for ICT in Developing Regions) board member and event speaker David Isaakson to me.
“It’s amazing that so many people are using this [social media] in countries with a situation with less freedom of expression or government control,” he added. “Social media becomes even more important when you don’t see unbiased reporting in national channels.”
Definitely. Citizen journalists, as we’ve seen in the Middle East, step up to fill the gap when the mainstream media either can’t get in, or does’t have the funding or motivation to cover stories considered to be of minimal international interest. For the first time, bloggers—even those who are operating under considerable danger—have the means to speak out against oppression in a very visible way. This scares the crap out of governments, and empowers tech-savvy people who might formally have been relatively helpless in the arena of speaking-truth-to-power. Ignore them at your own peril.
That simple reality ended up politicizing the event to some extent, perhaps more than the planners had anticipated. Almost every nation represented had an axe to grind: that people from all these nations were then able to come together and compare notes on what they’re up against is heartening in the extreme.
Meanwhile, the Cambodians weren’t shy about expressing their trepidation over the planned, feared Internet cyber-crimes draft law. The government claims it’s to protect against terrorism, but the bloggers are much more suspicious: they think the law will serve as a convenient method of cracking down on dissidents, much in the fashion of Vietnam or Thailand.
Cambodians currently enjoy one of the freest networks in Southeast Asia, and they are fully aware of the options this accords them: although most attendees were willing to play a bit of wait-and-see, they also were quite vocal about their apprehension.
Fai Suluck from Thailand discussed the situation in her own country, where strict lese majeste laws and fear stemming from recent military unrest have kept bloggers relatively silent.
She described the law and its dampening affects on freedom of speech in Thailand to the attentive crowd, then issued a warning: “…For countries about to have this law passed, yes: go against it.”
Watching a bunch of Asian blogger kids get down at the Angkor Wat Pub on Friday night was also rather amusing.
To get a sense of this event: it’s a blogging and tech conference held at a Siem Reap university, down a dusty road adjacent to where people keep cows. Some might find this a disturbing development indicator. Not me. I think it’s fantastic that we’re blending high-tech and low-tech.
Talks today included Isaksson on Internet freedom and empowerment, followed by a panel with Khmer bloggers and technologists Chak Sopheap, Sorn Ramana, and Ngeth Moses on topics ranging from gender roles in tech to Internet security to the “ideal 21st century wife.”
I attended breakout sessions on Wikipedia and Wikimedia (growing in Cambodia) and digital security, a topic of great import to bloggers forced to work under oppressive regimes. Quite interesting. I’m delivering a panel on Internet Freedom tomorrow. I have, er, drafted up some notes.
FCC reception this evening. Enjoyed circulating and meeting lots of people from all over the place. Nerds: they’re easy to befriend. I should know, I am one.
The King’s Birthday was on Wednesday. There had been some talk of cancelling it, as it was pointed out (delicately) that it was not exactly a birthday any longer, but the Khmer penchant for holidays and the outpouring of reverence for the King held out.
And so there were fireworks – like there usually are – and people congregated in large groups outside the palace – as they have been. As I sped to the Palace on a motorbike, I watched the fireworks go off, ringed on two sides by great bursts of heat lightning. I do not know this, but I suspect the heat lightning, too, will be attributed to the supernatural influence of the King Father.
The Palace has taken on something of a festive nature: this is mourning, sure, but not really the kind where one keens and wails and doesn’t enjoy life. Kids played outside the electric walls of the Royal Palace, shrieking at one another over the sound of talking and chanting.
They have installed a large television on the side of the Royal Palace that plays a brief video of Sihanouk’s final installation in the Capital, and of his family and alternating diginatries weeping over his body. The Jumbotron has become something of a center of attention, and people arrange themselves in a fan around it. Some of them eat popcorn.
Vendors sell all manner of Sihanouk-themed souvenirs, including t-shirts, though remain unable to actually find a vendor. I purchased a lovely silvery ribbon with a portrait of the King stuck on it—a bit North Korea-esque, except no one was making me wear it—and the seller fashioned it to my shirt, to the great amusement of all present.
Young men roam the crowds with camera, offering to take people’s photos and quickly print them out. There’s people selling inflatable animal-shaped balloons, and dancing foam mice, and kites, and grilled snakes-on-a-stick, and many, many other things. Families stake out ground with mats and bring coolers and sometimes a radio. The whole affair has taken on a festival mood—a nationalist festival you could call it.
“It’s about being Cambodian,” one of my friends said, of the young mourners who have gathered here. This is indeed all about being Cambodian, an outpouring of national pride.
People continue to light incense and to sign the now-groaning guestbook for the King. The scent of incense in the air is almost overwhelming, and the palace is ringed in a smoky halo many nights here, after Sihanouk’s passing. People come to offer lotuses and flowers to the large display that has been put up outside the palace walls: they are passed over a tall barrier to a young man who arranges the offerings among thousands of others.
Nuns—the most loyal mourners of the King, insofar as I can tell—alternately chanted and chatted, swapping small laminated photographs of Sihanouk with one another.
A friend tells me that the nuns have objected exceptionally strenuously to a suggestion that access to the King’s Body be limited to a lottery system. “He is our king, why can’t we just go in and see him?” they say. They are willing to wait out the government on this one.
Embarrassed to admit it hadn’t occurred to me before, those many zillion of times I’d passed the palace during regular operations, what these cauldrons are for. Are they only used for the death of a King?
Fire features large in Buddhist mourning celebrations. It makes for a gorgeous tableaux, that’s for sure.
OK, it ain’t Halloween no longer here in Phnom Penh, but here’s my GlobalPost piece on creepy world legends. Mostly happy to be able to share Slender Man with the world.
The Malaysian breast ghost and other scary global tales
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Halloween may be a largely American holiday, but remarkably creepy ghost stories are by no means restricted to the United States. Here are some weird and scary international ghost legends and stories to keep you up well past your post-Halloween party bedtime. Sweet (or at least surreal) dreams.
1. Ap/Krasue- Cambodia/Thailand
A beautiful young Cambodian woman walks outside her house at night. There’s a mysterious red glow in the air, and she walks toward it—to be confronted with a floating female head, with ghastly entrails hanging down from its neck. She screams. But it’s already too late.
That’s the Ap (Arp) or the Krasue (Thai), a Southeast Asian ghost, represented by the head of a good-looking young woman, that floats in the air, entrails, spine, and other assorted bloody organs dangling from its neck. It sounds remarkably bizarre, but it’s a persistent legend in this region—and various myths exist about how the Ap got to be, well, an Ap.