Government adopts Khmer Unicode

Cambodia’s main international airport first went digital in 2003. The new system multiplied exponentially the amount of time it took to get in or out of the country, as computer-unsavvy airport officials labored to understand the vagaries of Windows.

“We apologize for any delays that are caused by the use of our new computer system,” read little signs posted at each computer terminal.

They were still there two years later.

Even today, Cambodia remains in the very early stages of computer adoption. Most government ministries still keep hand-written records, and the exchange of data between agencies relies on an ad hoc system born of secondhand photocopiers and oil drums of ink. Decrepit phone lines and low computer-literacy rates add to the challenge.

The greatest hurdle of all has been the Cambodian language itself. For as beautiful as it is, there has been no standard way to display it. Until now.

In late December, the government passed a sub-decree requiring the Khmer Unicode font for all government correspondence.

In years past, the choice of typeface was left to the user, and as many as 30 different versions of “Khmer” competed for supremacy. There existed no uniform way to create the same characters across different fonts, which meant typists had to know them all, or stick to the few they did.

If documents arrived with an unknown character, too bad. Though font converters existed, few of them worked well, and translating from one font to another could take days or more.

Even more problematic, the lack of a font standard strangled the development of intra-government computer networks and centralized data storage. How could the government build a nationwide database of criminals, for example, when it could not even agree upon the font to use for data entry.

The move to Khmer Unicode fixes all that, and it provides the government a proper foundation on which to build a modern information system.

Apologies for any delay.