To Block, or Not to Block? Amidst Middle Eastern Unrest, Cambodian Authorities Just Can’t Decide
The Middle East is exploding with revolutionary fervor, and the entire world is watching with bated breath, wondering if those valiant millions who have turned out to protest will manage to translate unrest into successful, modern governance. The protests have largely been organized by way of social networking websites, Facebook especially. And Cambodia, like everywhere else, has taken notice of this international tide of revolt—especially the authorities.
Cambodia’s been toying with the censorship of websites for a while, and on January 19th, the authorities acted: The popular, occasionally exasperating, and always ballsy opposition blog KiMedia was suddenly made unavailable on the popular Ezcom and Metfone ISP’s, and soon, every ISP in town. The authorities denied up and down that they had anything to do with the website’s sudden disappearance, citing problems with Blogger itself and user error for KiMedia’s disappearance. The ISP owners, for their part, clammed up fast when asked about the matter.
About a week ago, the block was lifted. KiMedia is now back and easily viewable in all its political cartoon-posting and slightly surrealist glory. Someone’s mind changed. But why? And why did the shutdown happen in the first place? It’s likely that the Cambodian powers-that-be got cold feet in the wake of the protests across the Middle East, and figured that restricting a popular opposition website would be a preemptive strike against such unrest here.
There’s evidence that such worried thoughts have crossed the mind of Cambodia’s power elite – Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has recently made very telling, if incomprehensible remarks on the Middle Eastern situation. In response to a Radio Free Asia show, noting that a Middle-Eastern style popular revolt could very well occur in Cambodia, Hun Sen responded with threats: “”I have to send a message to people who want to inspire a riot (like) in Tunisia…. I will close the door and beat the dog.” He added, just to emphasize his point: “”I remind you: first, do not play. But if you can gather enough people, please go ahead.” Although the “beat the dog” comment swiftly became a running joke, the threat implicit in his words was clear: If you provoke me, I’m perfectly willing to strike back.
Words and intent may be different things, but it’s wise to remember that Hun Sen came to power after orchestrating a violent military coup. Putting down a Middle-East style protest movement wouldn’t exactly be outside of his skill set.
Exiled opposition leader and Hun Sen nemesis Sam Rainsy has also taken note of the regime’s uneasiness. On a trip to New York City at the end of February, he observed to U.S. officials: “Once the poor cannot benefit from development, and when the poor are getting poorer and poorer, there will be uprisings, as in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya…. Cambodia is the same.”
No one’s proven yet that KiMedia’s brief vacation was related to the pro-democracy protests in the Middle East, but the timing of the blockage is, to say the least, highly suspect. Still, revolution watchers shouldn’t get excited. Cambodia’s majority agrarian society and the people’s lack of education means it’s unlikely the Internet or social networking could be a viable means of organizing a massive, coordinated protest here, in the fashion of more developed countries like Egypt, Bahrain, and even Tunisia.
Although Tunisia has a smaller population then Cambodia’s, it boasts 3.5 million Internet users as of 2009, in comparison to Cambodia’s mere 78,500. Although Cambodians do protest, these protests are usually organized at the village level—and are usually repressed. But Cambodia’s hectic rate of growth and ever-increasing access to the Internet means that it’s possible such a social-networking driven popular movement could happen in the future. Which begs the question; are the Cambodian authorities testing out a more draconian method of controlling the Internet before anybody gets any ideas, ala China?
And people are getting ideas, albeit on a small scale. Last weekend, an event was created on Facebook, asking people to dress in white and convene at Phnom Penh’s central Independence Monument at 4:00 pm on Friday, March 4. The “White Out the Independence Monument” event was, rather curiously, described as a “celebration” of Cambodia’s relatively free access to the Internet.
The event’s coordinator wrote in the description box: “Some countries have blocked access to this vital tool [the Internet]. As a genuine member of the 21st century global community, CAMBODIA IS NOT ONE OF THOSE COUNTRIES AND WE WANT TO CELEBRATE THAT FACT. This is what this event is all about.” The event’s creator carefully avoided any reference to the Middle East, and repeatedly emphasized that the event “was not a protest or a demonstration,” asking that people “not hijack this event for political purposes.”
I headed by the Monument a couple of times that day to see if anyone had shown up. No one appeared during the event’s supposed 4:00 to 7:00 pm run-time— and according to a number of people who came by after I did, no one ever did, other then a couple of journalists, some nervous looking and normally dressed locals who left quickly, and a cop who probably was unaware that anything was supposed to happen. Tahir Square, it wasn’t.
As it turned out, the event was coordinated by someone who was in the U.S – which was not apparent from the original Facebook event. The same went for most of those who said they would “attend” on Facebook. It’s a lot easier to resist an authoritarian government if you happen to be on the other side of the planet.
It will be exceptionally interesting to see if the rise of the Internet over the next few years here in Cambodia will also increase the number of overt challenges to the existing regime’s rule. If these challenges do materialize, they will only strengthen the Internet’s international reputation as the best tool of revolution we have, making “events” like the White Out meeting a real, instead of an imagined, possibility. Or will Cambodia’s government clamp down on the Internet even further after this initial, opening salvo? It’s a choice between an open and free society, or one of even greater totalitarianism – and that’s something Cambodian’s can’t afford again.
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