or: “We Lost The Lake, But Can We Free The Fifteen?”

In 2007 numerous advocates were concerned about Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak lake. It was being filled in with sand, yet actual information about the company doing it was very hard to find. Unlike some communities facing eviction, this was a very diverse one, including a small tourist hub and a fair number of middle-class folks who really hadn’t expected to see such a drastic change.

The common consensus was that the issue needed more news coverage. More exposure. And a blog, ‘Save Boeung Kak‘ was created.  http://saveboeungkak.wordpress.com

Updating it was slow going. Most Cambodian advocacy NGOs are hestiant to embrace social media; they’re usually too busy dealing with crises at hand to consider a media strategy. Much less commit resources to putting information online. The end result? Usually it’s delegated to an intern.

Over the years Boeung Kak wasn’t ‘saved’, but filled in. After years of spotty and incomplete updating, the site finally seems to have found its groove. (Though I would caution them about their ‘cut and paste’ approach of using news articles in total.) I’m particularly impressed that ‘Save BK’ has begun including news directly in Khmer Unicode.

Showing how much can change in a few years: the lake is now full of sand. Fifteen Boeung Kak activists were taken to jail in a snap trial. Within a week, there was a blog: ‘Free The Fifteen’ (English and Khmer), a twitter account and a Facebook group.

Roughly one percent of Cambodia uses the internet on a regular basis. But it’s a very influential one percent. In the intervening years between the establishment of ‘Save Boeung Kak’ and ‘Free The 15′, young Cambodians have become addicted to the internet, particularly via Facebook. This has resulted in a much more web-savvy community over a very short period.

Here’s hoping that we will see a robust and civil discussion of issues on the internet in Cambodia, rather than censorship. Cambodia has an opportunity to set an example as a country with a high degree of free speech, compared to its more heavy-handed neighbors.


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