Thursday, Jan. 27, 2000
Staff writer When you send e-mail, either in English or Japanese, you assume it can be read on the recipient's computer screen without any problems. But if the message is in Khmer, chances are that it will be turned into a series of symbols that make no sense. "What is common in Japan (and other industrialized countries) has yet to become common in many other parts of the world, including Cambodia," said Yukihiko Mukai, of the Asia Pacific Association of Japan, a research institute on international affairs. To change the situation, the Khmer Philology Project, coordinated by the APA, has recently developed a Khmer word code software that the project team hopes will greatly improve digital communication in Cambodia. Khmer, the official language of Cambodia, can be typed and printed out by installing various fonts, but the country still lacks a standardized Khmer character code set, making it very difficult to exchange data and files written in the language on computers. In computer transmissions, all data -- including characters and words -- are sent in the form of numeric codes. Thus, in exchanging information, the system works only when the sender and recipient of a given message share the same code system. The project team, consisting of eight Japanese and Cambodian researchers, said its software may provide such a standardized code system for Khmer, which at present lacks such a system. Cambodia, which suffered years of civil war, joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations last April. The future development of the country, however, could be hampered if it cannot take advantage of the global move toward computerization. The spread of a standardized code system, which enables people to access greater volumes of information in their own language, is just as important as the spread of computers themselves, Mukai said. The APA selected Khmer out of many Asian languages for its 25th anniversary project because of its complicated structure, he said. The language is inscribed in 33 consonant characters combined with symbols representing nine cardinal vowels and nine disyllable vowels depending on their shape and how they are attached, resulting in a number of different code systems, according to the project team. "Khmer, which originated in the second century, became the root for many other languages in the region, so we thought if we could manage to (create an efficient code system for Khmer), we could probably apply the same idea to many others," Mukai said. Currently, about 10 font systems are in use in Cambodia, each using a unique set of character codes, according to the team. "If Cambodian computer users install all the existing Khmer fonts, it is theoretically possible for them to read any text by applying them one by one," said Shiro Harada, a research associate at the Institute of Oriental Culture at the University of Tokyo and a member of the project who programmed the software. "But if you don't know which font system is used, it takes a lot of time and effort just to find the right one. Also, the number of font systems will keep on increasing. So it's best that Khmer codes are unified." Lao Kim Leang, manager of the Japan Quality Assurance Organization's environment center and the programmer of the software, said it had been difficult for Cambodians to establish an efficient system that can serve as the standard on their own due to a lack of technology and need. "It's up to the Cambodian people to decide whether they will accept our code system as their standard," said Lao, who is a naturalized Japanese citizen. "But I hope the Cambodian people will find our system very efficient." Harada and Lao unveiled the code system Thursday at the 2nd International Conference on Khmer Studies at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. The three-day conference, organized by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, the Royal University of Phnom Penh and the Royal Academy of Cambodia, ends Friday. The Khmer code software can run on both English and Japanese versions of Windows, Harada said, adding that his team plans to eventually enable users to download it free from the Institute of Oriental Culture's Web site.