PHNOM PENH - The United States has invited senior Cambodian officials to learn about cybercrime from U.S. experts.
Numerous countries and nongovernmental organizations have expressed concern in recent years over the drafting of a Cambodian cybercrime law, which critics say could be used to restrict freedom of expression and stifle political dissent as Cambodians increasingly turn to social media websites such as Facebook to share their political opinions.
Kan Channmeta, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, said he estimates about 7 million Cambodians — almost half the population — now regularly use the internet.
U.S. Ambassador William Heidt said in early June that the United States wanted to work with the Cambodian government to ensure Cambodians have freedom of expression online.
"Cybercrime is a real problem in the United States and Cambodia as well, so we are working with Cambodia," Heidt said when proposing the training. He said they would bring officials to the U.S. "to see how our cyberlaw works; how the United States enforces and prosecutes cybercrime."
"We'll make sure that your internet remains a place for free expression as well," he said at the time.
Win over young voters
Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for more than 30 years, is increasingly using Facebook as a medium to both direct policy and gauge popular opinion. Observers suggest the move is a strategic bid to win over young voters from the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party ahead of the next general election in 2018.
Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said that while the government welcomed the training, not everything that applied in the U.S. would work in Cambodia.
"I am interested in U.S. standards regarding their culture of strengthening their national security and the knowledge of their nation," Siphan said, adding that U.S. cybercrime laws will be used as reference points for Cambodia.
"We take [the law] as a reference since, though we are not there yet, we are prepared for the coming years when our economy is booming, and standards of living are better and the law is respected," he said. "So we want to collect elements to put into drafting of the cybercrime law."
Siphan suggested government officials in Phnom Penh may encounter barriers to implementing anti-cybercrime measures, citing the dispute between the FBI and Apple, which centers around the extent to which courts can compel technology manufacturers to unlock encrypted cellphones.
Ability to tackle cybercrime
General Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said the level of knowledge among Cambodian authorities on how to tackle cybercrime remains low.
"Technology advances very quickly, and some countries will not catch up with the developed countries," Sopheak said. "The knowledge [on cybercrime] is sometimes beyond our capacity. As you may know, we are not a country that produces computers or programmers.
"Most of the programs [we use] are from [the U.S.], so I am very happy that our experts could absorb more advanced technology in developed countries, particularly the U.S.," he said.
Sopheak also said the government is perturbed by Khmer-Americans who use Facebook as a platform to hurl insults at Hun Sen and other government leaders.
"I want them to stop, and if such cases happen, I would like the U.S. officials to cooperate, at least to let them know that although they are American, they have to respect Cambodian traditions," he said.
This report was produced in collaboration with VOA's Khmer Service.