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."

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