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From Khmer Rouge to KhmerOS: Cambodia's New Era Begins With Technology

With an ongoing struggle for the basics of survival, how can technology be considered a priority by and for the citizens of Cambodia?

by / September 2, 2008

Photo: Student using new KhmerOS software

Cambodia has all the makings of an idyllic tourist destination: miles of coastline, year-round warm weather and a rich cultural heritage. Instead, it is a country with a tumultuous past, one that has been caught for decades in the middle of warring nations and civil unrest. Used as a buffer zone by both the U.S. and the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War, Cambodia suffered from bombs, Communist influence and mounting internal struggles in the 1950s and 1960s. By the mid-1970s, military extremist Pol Pot and the Communist Party of Kampuchea -- also known as the Khmer Rouge -- were rapidly gaining power and thus began the destruction of Cambodian society. People were moved from the cities into the country to live and work in Pol Pot's version of an agrarian utopia. Convinced that Cambodia needed cleansing, Pol Pot and his regime systematically executed an estimated two to three million of their own countrymen. Former government officials, intellectuals, students, businessmen and countless other innocent lives were lost during the five-year reign of the Khmer Rouge. A genocide comparable to the Holocaust, the Khmer Rouge visited torture, mass executions and starvation on the population. Nearly half of Cambodia's 7.3 million people were brutally exterminated while the living were left to pick up the pieces.

A closer look at Cambodia today will reveal a much improved picture. Although Pol Pot died before he could be held accountable for war crimes, his top officials will soon come to trial. The Khmer Rouge has been largely dismantled and the fighting between neighboring countries has been all but eliminated. But a country littered with landmines, suffering from extreme national poverty and battling internal corruption can hardly be considered a thriving nation. Still agrarian in nature, a majority of Cambodia's estimated current population of 13.8 million people subsist on growing rice, corn and other crops. With an average life expectancy of 57 years and an average literacy rate of 67 percent, there is no question that Cambodia falls far behind many of the more developed countries of the world. Today, about 44,000 people have access to the Internet, which is about .3 percent of the population -- a seven-fold increase from the year 2000. But with an ongoing struggle for the basics of survival, how can technology be considered a priority by and for the citizens of Cambodia? Is it something superficial that would be "nice to have" or is it an essential ingredient for the country's future economic prosperity?

A Brighter Future

Open Institute, a non-governmental organization based in Cambodia and headed by Spanish engineer Javier Solá takes the view that technology is indeed a key ingredient for Cambodia's future well-being. "Technology is an essential part of the infrastructure needed for the economical future of Cambodia," explained Solá. "Humanitarian help is more and more directed to try to create development, and not to solve [immediate] crises. Our project is bringing this infrastructure into Cambodia at the right time, as it will be necessary for most urban jobs within the next five years."

Part of the answer is The Khmer Software Initiative (KhmerOS) -- 2007 finalist in the Stockholm Challenge. With help from this program, the hope is that Cambodia will soon be able to open its doors to foreign development and trade.

Khmer Software Initiative

KhmerOS -- initiated in 2004 -- is based on two simple principles: 1) Basic technology is essential to development; and 2) The technology must be in the national language to avoid minority control. With the country's history and current economics, proprietary software companies were not willing to make the translation investment so their products could be marketed there. Cambodians --

with the help of Open Institute -- translated applications such as word processing, e-mail, spreadsheets and an Internet browser into Khmer using Free and Open Source Software (FOSS). FOSS -- which allows for translation, adaptation, modification and free distribution -- became the backbone of the programming process. And since power consumption is an important consideration in Cambodia, FOSS's low power consumption was crucial for sustainability.

Students use computer programs in their own languageDuring its first year of operation, 2004, Open Institute translated computer applications into the Khmer language. Project workers developed and standardized Khmer scripts and fonts, designed and manufactured keyboards and printed manuals in Khmer for the applications. Translation proved to be a challenge because the Khmer language lacks the equivalent for many words we use in the English language. For example, "They have a word for 'elder sibling' and a word for 'younger sibling' but no word for 'brother,'" Solá explained. The incompatibilities necessitated the use of some English words for clarification purposes.

Government and Education

In 2005, Open Institute teamed up with the government's National ICT Development Authority (NiDA). Together, the two organizations trained approximately 3,000 government officials and 1,000 teachers. For those working in administrative government jobs, the new technology meant the possibility of using computers for their everyday work for the first time, as using English software was not a viable option.

Equally as important was distribution to school teachers and other trainers. Because the education system is the fastest vehicle in which to spread knowledge to the masses, KhmerOS aimed to educate the younger generation of Cambodians through schools and training centers. "The education system produces the professionals of the future [and] these professionals will need computer skills," said Solá.

Later, in 2006, a National Typing and Document Contest motivated several thousand students and professionals to learn how to type Khmer and use other applications. Knowledge of the KhmerOS program was spreading nationwide and soon schools and government operations all over the country were using the new software and technology. As the program matured, its focus shifted to accommodate social and cultural needs of the country. Open Institute began collaboration with the Cambodian Ministry of Education and by 2008, it became mandatory for all high schools with electricity (roughly 30-40 percent) to use the new technology. The most significant achievement of the project thus far has been its ability to involve the government in a positive and productive way, allowing ICT to become fully integrated into public policy.

Sustainability

To ensure that the new technology would have lasting power, KhmerOS made long-term sustainability a top priority. The physical elements of the project found their own way to sustainability. Technology for the Khmer script keyboards and textbooks was transferred to local vendors, who are now manufacturing and selling them. Other aspects of the project are also looking for interested third parties that will turn portions of the project, that now require funding, into businesses that make the system sustainable.

"The most important success factor of the KhmerOS project has been its ability to bring together the [developmental] know-how of NGOs with the technological expertise of the FOSS community and the experience and vision of the Cambodian government," said Solá. "This has interested commercial stakeholders, leading to the sustainable low-cost use of local language ICT in education, government and local society, strongly reducing the digital divide."

Change is always difficult, even when it brings clear advantages. But when change is necessary for survival, bold, and sometimes daunting, steps must be taken. By removing the language barrier, technology has been made accessible to most of the population and is helping Cambodia move out of the past and into the future; a future where information is just a click away.