Young Khmer pioneers blaze a Wikipedia trail
Keo Kounila, a blogger and “new media” consultant, tapped into
Wikipedia to find information on Keng Vannsak who, among other things,
invented the Khmer typewriter keyboard and was a mentor to the young
Pol Pot. She was shocked to find that in the vast expanse of
Wikipedia, Vannsak, one of the most famous Khmer intellectuals of the
20th century, was a nonentity.
Now the 24-year-old is one of scores of Cambodian contributors to
English Wikipedia and, in the past seven years,
the fledgling Khmer Wikipedia.
When you Google “Keng Vannsak” now, Kounila’s Wikipedia article is the
first result that comes up.
For Kounila, getting Cambodian intellectuals and places into Wikipedia
is a matter of almost national significance.
Until now there has never been a Khmer- language encyclopedia. Since
1967, Cambodia’s main published reference work has been the Chuon Nath
With so much written knowledge and literature having been destroyed
during the Khmer Rouge period, the potential
for both English and Khmer Wikipedia for a generation of young
internet users is enormous.
“I started with English Wikipedia first, because I thought other
people around the world would need to know more about Khmer,” Kounila
“We have a lot of young people who are interested in sharing
knowledge, and they can’t keep it to themselves.”
The birth of Khmer Wikipedia in 2005 is all due to then-20-year-old
Phnom Penh university student Oum Vantharith, who received a message
on his Wikipedia user profile from a non-Khmer user called Jose77:
As you may have guessed already, a significant proportion of regular
contributors to this site know little or no Khmer, the message read.
We hope you can contribute, no matter what your language skills are.
The suggestion piqued Vantharith’s interest. Seven years later, Khmer
Wikipedia has more than 5,500 registered users and 10 administrators
– all of them volunteers.
With just under 4,000 articles, it is one of the infant versions of
this colossal collaborative project, but in the absence of
a standard Khmer reference tome like the English-language Encyclopedia
Britannica, the fledgling Khmer Wikipedia team
believes its impact could be significant.
The Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit parent organisation of the
encyclopedia and its other wiki-projects, says its mission is “to
empower and engage people around the world to collect and develop
educational content under a free licence or in the public domain, and
to disseminate it effectively and globally.”
Initially, Vantharith used the free online encyclopedia for his
university assignments, but occasionally he was moved to add to
articles on Cambodia-related subjects.
A Khmer-language version of the site seemed a huge undertaking, to put
it mildly, especially given that Khmer Unicode — a standard digital
Khmer alphabet — had come into widespread use only a few years before.
For internet users who didn’t read English, how would Vantharith even
get the word out that there was a Khmer version, let alone convert
them to the church of Wiki?
Vantharith took up Jose77’s suggestion and began emailing him the
Khmer Unicode for the Wikipedia interface: the familiar heading, the
content box below it, and the sidebar to the right. They sent the code
back and forth until they had a template for a Khmer Wikipedia home
page and article.
“I started getting more involved in the project,” says Vanthirith,
who is now 27 and sports a Wikimania – Wikipedia’s annual global
conference — T-shirt.
“We don’t have good resources in our local language. We believe in a
free local resource that can benefit everyone.”
The Khmer Wikipedia creator is articulate and easy-going, with an
infectious enthusiasm for the Wikipedia mission, although being based
in Seoul means he can no longer oversee the physical organisation of
the Khmer Wikipedia project.
For the first few years, articles were submitted at a glacial rate.
Vantharith was too busy “patrolling” the site and editing entries to
write unique articles for the encyclopedia himself. After three years,
the encyclopedia had clocked up just 500 entries.
By late 2008, however, after Vantharith had extolled the project on
social media, contributions spiked and the encyclopedia received 274
new articles in one month.
“Some people don’t understand the essence of the movement. Some just
copied their own work into Wikipedia, but then (they) didn’t
understand that it could be edited by anyone,” he says.
Perhaps because it required some knowledge of code to edit, initial
contributions were from Khmers writing about computer operating
systems and mathematics, or highly specialised fields.
Kounila believes the verification process of English Wikipedia has
evolved a lot in just a few years. He cites Barack Obama’s page as an
example of a reference as well-cited as any published public
“Administrators are not writers; they are scholars and professors —
with such people (writing for Wikipedia), these articles are very
important. They can change people’s opinions,” she argues.
In April, 2011, the small community of Khmer Wikipedians held the
first off-line meeting at Hacker Space, a not-for-profit computer
workspace. Only three attended the first meet-up, including
16-year-old high- school student Tep Sovichet.
Sovichet had already contributed content to Khmer Wikipedia, including
articles on Cambodian mammals, open-source software and intestinal
diseases. Some of the information he found on native mammals was from
a book an uncle gave him; for intestinal diseases, his starting point
was a bunch of handwritten notes he found at home.
“Mostly, I focus on articles that are not on Wikipedia,” he says. “I
want Khmer people to know about Khmer articles.
At the moment, there’s not a lot they can search for in Khmer.”
English student and blogger Suon Sopheaktra, 23, buys Khmer history
and biographical books to use as his Khmer Wikipedia sources, but is
wary of intellectual copyright issues. He focuses on “history,
culture, people and literature” and submits his work as Word
documents, for the editors to upload.
Forty wannabe Wikipedians attended the third Khmer Wikipedia meet-up.
At the same time, Wikipedia streamlined its English-language version
to a Wordpress-style editing system so contributors didn’t have to
know code to edit articles.
“The primary motive is simply the joy of learning and the fact your
work will be read by hundreds of thousands, if not millions. It makes
more sense writing for Wikipedia than an esoteric journal no one has
heard of,” Anirudh Singh Bhati, a Phnom-Penh based legal consultant
and Wikipedian, says.
Bhati co-founded Wikimedia India and is one of Wikipedia’s 750 active
administrators. Like Sovichet and Vantharith, he hopes Khmer Wikipedia
will gain enough momentum to start its own Cambodia Wikimedia chapter,
give it direction and
raise the standard of editing, rather than publish a grab-bag of
subjects and themes.
But the 2011 success of the Khmer Wikipedians has dwindled again,
members say. They hope 2013 will be the year the flow of knowledge
resumes. The relatively small number of Khmer-language internet users
doesn’t mean progress on the grand project has to be slow, Bhati
With 400 million speakers, Hindi Wikipedia ought to have a stronger
presence than the Tamil-language version, Bhati says, but Tamil
Wikipedians are passionate about documenting and have seen the
encyclopedia grow exponentially. He believes Khmers have the same
“In Cambodia, English is still a second language, so the potential for
the Khmer- language Wikipedia to grow is very high.
Also, the people here are very proud of their language . . . I think
Khmer Wikipedia has a good future,” Bhati says.