Cambodia is a country ruled by a de facto government that uses totalitarian control methods to retain power over its citizens. In November 2017, the Supreme Court of Cambodia ruled to dissolve the Cambodia National Rescue Party – effectively banning opposition parties in the country. At the time, Charles Santiago, Chairman of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights referred to the move as "the final nail in the coffin for Cambodian democracy".
Since then, Cambodia's 2018 general elections took place under massively oppressive circumstances in which voters were given no meaningful options. The result of this political manipulation was the reelection of the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) – which has now remained at the helm since 1979.
For the CPP to maintain this undemocratic chokehold over the nation, its rulers constantly seek to control the flow of information. Website censorship has become common, freedom of expression is severely under threat, the mainstream media is highly controlled, and independent media and civil society outlets are restricted.
Now, to make things worse, plans for an internet bottleneck are raising concerns for the future of the country. The proposed National Internet Gateway would report directly to the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, and it would result in complete governmental control over the flow of information in and out of the country.
This kind of bottleneck is hugely concerning because it would create a pervasive surveillance mechanism for monitoring everybody's web searches, visits, and metadata. And it would allow the government to censor websites and services arbitrarily – potentially by pulling the plug on the internet altogether.
National Internet Gateway
Cambodia's government claims that the creation of a National Internet Gateway is designed to reduce costs for local Internet Service Providers by removing the need for those telecom companies to establish expensive contracts with outside networks. Phay Siphan, head of the Royal Government Spokesperson Unit has stated that the gateway would stimulate the economy and improve the efficiency of Cambodia's internet. This rhetoric is a deceitful way to mask the bottleneck's true underlying purpose.
Over the last few years, the CCP has increasingly ruled by force – actively persecuting anybody who stands in its way. In 2019, a court charged eight of the now-banned CNRP party's top officials with treason, sending a strong message to opposition party members.
Where protests do spring up, national security forces arrest demonstrators and use prosecutions to cultivate an environment of self-censorship.
The CCP understands that to maintain this level of dominion, it must execute absolute control over the flow of information. The internet bottleneck is designed to provide this capability – ensuring that citizens will find it impossible to escape the bubble of propaganda maintained within the country.
This desire for control is not surprising when taken in a wider context. Governments worldwide are increasingly aware of the revolutionary capacity of the internet. In diverse places such as Egypt, Zimbabwe, Belarus, Turkey, and Vietnam, the internet has served as the primary method for highlighting government corruption.
Time and time again this has led to the mobilization of political opposition, protests, and in some instances palpable political change – as was the case in the Arab Spring. These kinds of successes inevitably cause entrenched regimes to sit up and take notice. In Cambodia, this is leading to closer political alignment with China and its overreaching methodologies.
Asia Internet Coalition
It is for this reason that the Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) recently started kicking up a fuss. The AIC includes members like Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Yahoo. Those tech companies understand that a National Internet Gateway would permit the government to block their services completely.
Admittedly, with just 16.4 million citizens, Cambodia is a relatively small market. However, internet penetration now stands at around 90% of the population – and this figure is expected to grow. This makes the country a significant garrison in the West's battle against the Middle Kingdom's home-grown internet services.
Add to this the wave of similar ambitions expressed in places like The Solomon Islands – where the government recently revealed plans to ban Facebook – or Vietnam, where large-scale censorship has become the norm, and it is easy to understand why the AIC is growing increasingly anxious. All signs point to burgeoning Chinese dominance across Asia – at the risk of exclusion for Western services.
An Internet kill-switch
Of course, with VPN services available, Cambodian citizens and businesses can theoretically bypass government-imposed censorship and surveillance. Unfortunately, even this ability would diminish due to the bottleneck, which would facilitate the active restriction of VPN websites and servers. Remember that even in countries like the United Arab Emirates, where VPNs remain legal, consumer-facing VPNs are being blocked en masse by government-controlled ISPs.
Ultimately, a National Internet Gateway for Cambodia is troubling not just locally but throughout Asia and the rest of the world. It creates an environment in which it becomes impossible to escape political tyranny, and where the ever-looming potential for complete internet blackouts can't be countered with circumvention technologies like VPNs.
This is part of a downward spiral that has been noticed by organizations like Freedom House throughout Asia and the world for eight consecutive years. In 2020 alone, governments in Togo, Burundi, and Belarus flipped the internet kill-switch during elections – a frightening sign of things to come.
In Cambodia, this global decline in online freedoms is now translating into devastating, society-altering changes. Effects that can be directly attributed to the successful exportation of Chinese techno-dystopian ideals that are rapidly spreading around the globe.