Cambodian children get cyberspace savvy with free Internet kiosks

It may be holiday time, but students still hang out at a handful of schools in impoverished Cambodia, lured by free Internet kiosks aimed at getting more people here au fait with cyberspace.

At a high school outside the capital Phnom Penh, some students research Asian architecture, others check football results, and a few, like 12-year-old Keo Nimol, just silently watch.

"I don’t know how to use the Internet," he confesses, peering over the shoulder of another student checking e-mail. But Keo Nimol has still been dropping by since the project opened here in April.

The four kiosks funded by the Indian government and dotted around this war-scarred, mostly agricultural country, are designed to allow the poor to see the wonders of the internet.

"The aim is to arouse students’ curiosity, encourage them to learn. It’s a self-learning process," Indian diplomat V. K. Sharma says.

Students clamour for turns to log on.

"I saw other people using it, and I just learned. It wasn’t very difficult," says 16-year-old Hak Yoty, perched on a railing as he surfs one of the two terminals.

Some 49 similar kiosks are open in India, while 30 have been installed in Egypt, and talks are under way to see them launched in Laos and the Philippines, says Ashoo Dubey, systems executive with NIIT, the company providing them.

On average, the kiosks cost around 8,000 to 10,000 dollars. Access is monitored remotely from New Delhi, with porn sites blocked but otherwise no restrictions.

"It’s a new frontier for Cambodian children, accessing the internet, email, and seeing what’s online," says Phu Leewood, secretary-general of the government’s top IT authority, which is overseeing the project.

Internet cafes are spreading in Cambodia, but with up to half the population living on a dollar a day or less, the typical one-dollar an hour charge at urban areas outside Phnom Penh — more in remote areas — is formidable.

Another kiosk is slated to open soon in Cambodia, but overwhelming demand from students means the government is poised to ask for funding to erect kiosks at schools across the kingdom, Leewood says.

Teacher Kruy Kroeun says people from outside the community also flock here.

"All classes of people come — the poorest of people in our society, people wearing rags, they are coming and learning," he says.

"At break time, students race each other to get here. Others come, they park their motorbikes and their bicycles, and they wait for a turn…. They just need to be patient."

Access isn’t perfect: One problem, says 15-year-old Khen Hasda, here to scour international and sports news, is that girls are in a minority.

"There are too many boys and most girls dare not come," he says.

Kruy Kroeun says students are thrilled to benefit from the billions of dollars in aid that has poured into the kingdom, which suffered from nearly three decades of armed conflict that ended only in 1998.

"Students hear that a lot of money comes into Cambodia, but they don’t see any of it. To have these, it really motivates them."

Cambodia’s political drama serves up encore in court as lawsuits fly

The curtain has come down on Cambodia’s year-long political crisis but the stage is set for an encore in the courts with leaders serving lawsuits on each other and their critics.

Political life was halted as the country’s three main parties rowed over the make-up of a new government following inconclusive national elections in July 2003.

The crisis was finally settled in July this year but political leaders continue to battle on in the courts, riling the king and ordinary Cambodians who just want to see their leaders get on with governing.

Premier Hun Sen led the lawsuit charge in January with a five million-dollar defamation claim in Cambodia’s notoriously corrupt courts against opposition leader Sam Rainsy.

Rainsy had claimed that the premier was the brains behind the assassination of top union boss Chea Vichea, who was gunned down in Phnom Penh in January.

The opposition leader retaliated with his own suit, this time alleging that Hun Sen masterminded a 1997 grenade attack on his supporters.

Little progress occurred in either case until late last month after the political crisis ended, with Prince Norodom Ranariddh’s royalist party joining Hun Sen’s new administration.

Rainsy was grilled in a closed-door session over the defamation suit while prosecutors questioned Hun Sen over involvement in the 1997 attack.

Last week, opposition and royalist leaders threatened suits against each other and their critics over sizzling allegations of corruption and bribery.

"I had thought that once the government was formed, our leaders would concentrate on the program that they had worked out and agreed upon," said Lao Mong Hay, political analyst from the Centre for Social Development.

Instead, he said, the leaders "are spending their time preoccupied with public opinion in courts with the lawsuits. It’s not good for the country."

The flurry of cases has also annoyed Cambodia’s influential king.

"This issue, I am not satisfied with… I believe we should solve this problem and reconcile so we do not have these issues at court any more," King Norodom Sihanouk told Hun Sen and Ranariddh at a weekend meeting.

But after their explanations, he softened his stance. "So these lawsuits must be filed — if they are not, reputations will be damaged. The issue of honour is very important," he said.

Hang Puthea, director of election monitoring group Nicfec, said the court battles were being waged with a strategic eye on the 2008 election.

"Everything they do is in preparation for the next election. The results from the court mean nothing — Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy have their own agendas."

Rainsy wants people to see him as a fearless leader, while Hun Sen, accused of wielding strong political influence on Cambodia’s judiciary, wants people to believe he is innocent of any wrongdoing, Hang Puthea added.

Sok Sam Oeun, director of legal aid group the Cambodian Defenders Project, predicted the suits would be dropped.

"In the end it will end by political means — at the last moment, all of them will withdraw the lawsuits," he said.

One senior diplomat said at least the politicians were using the creaking court system rather than resorting to the violence that has scarred the country’s recent past.

"The wider perspective is that people are turning to the law courts as a way of resolving disputes, rather than pulling out guns and shooting each other," he told AFP.