September 2, 2008 By Casey Mayville
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 --