Asia

Cambodian leader's love-hate relationship with Facebook

Prime Minister Hun Sen Image copyright Reuters
Image caption There were fears of an even bigger social media crackdown after it nearly cost Hun Sen the 2013 election

Prime Minister Hun Sen has ruled Cambodia with an iron fist for 30 years. Now, the self-styled strongman is focusing his formidable political and security apparatus on a new theatre of operation - Facebook.

Last week, he warned social media users to cease insulting him online or face arrest. The seeming anonymity of the internet would offer no shield, he said.

"If I want to take action against you, we will get [you] within seven hours at the most," Hun Sen said in speech, naming the Facebook user he was warning, local media reported.

A few days later, Hun Sen issued another warning to "extremists" in the opposition party, accusing them of altering a photograph of his wife and posting it to Facebook. Those responsible will face the law, he said.

Facebook has emerged as a serious political force in Cambodia since the country's 2013 national election, which Hun Sen almost lost. That year, young, social media-savvy voters rallied to the opposition party, using the site to share news and information, and coordinate their campaigns.

After TV, the social network has become the second most important platform for Cambodians to access information.

Hun Sen's near debacle in the election - his party lost 22 seats in parliament - forced a strategy rethink, which included learning from the opposition's use of social media.

He has now launched a digital counter offensive.

Image copyright Facebook
Image caption It took Hun Sen a while to reveal a Facebook page with his name was actually his official page

In September, Hun Sen revealed that a Facebook page that had long borne his name - though he denied operating it - was, in fact, his official page. He admitted ownership only after the page garnered one million likes.

The timing may have had something to do with Hun Sen's arch rival, opposition party leader Sam Rainsy, who has close to two million likes on his page.

A latter-day social media zealot, Hun Sen now delivers live addresses on Facebook, posts selfies, and uploads all manner of documents and photos, from images of his grandchildren to a recent shot of an old comrade ill in bed.

He has also launched a new personal website and his own Hun Sen app for Android phones - (iOS follows soon). And his Facebook page has 1.7 million likes and counting.

Hun Sen has adopted social media, but he has not embraced the culture of free speech often associated with a digital landscape, said Ou Ritthy, a political blogger and commentator.

"Hun Sen said very clearly he knows immediately, within seven hours, whoever criticizes him using bad words."

Defining what constitutes an insult in Hun Sen's books is impossible to guess, he says, adding that the prime minister's warnings have caused many to think twice about what they post.

On a more positive note, Hun Sen could have shut down all social media after it contributed to his party's near election loss in 2013, said Ou Ritthy. He chose not to do that. Instead, he is trying to control the digital debate.

"On one hand, Hun Sen tries to engage [on social media]. But, on the other, he tries to dilute, he tries to weaken other users who seem to disagree with him."

Image copyright AFP
Image caption A late convert to social media, Hun Sen has embraced it with enthusiasm

And there are serious consequences for stepping over the prime minister's social media line.

Last August, a 25-year-old political science student was jailed on charges of incitement after writing on his Facebook page that he wanted people to participate in a "colour revolution" to change society.

The same month, Hun Sen ordered the arrest of an opposition party senator for posting a video clip on Facebook featuring a falsified government document.

Arrest warrants have also been issued for Sam Rainsy, already in self-imposed exile, and two senior members of his social media team, who have already fled Cambodia, over the senator's Facebook post.

Sok Eysan, spokesman for the ruling party, said Hun Sen's warnings were simply to "encourage" social media users to be constructive in their criticism and to prevent defamation, which is punishable as a crime.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Supporters of the prime minister say he just wants to encourage constructive debate

With more than one million people liking her Facebook page, high school student Thy Sovantha became Cambodia's first social media star during the 2013 election.

Posting plucky video reports to her Facebook page along with cutting commentary on the government, Sovantha became a symbol of youth support for political change after three decades of Hun Sen's rule.

Sovantha said she does not intend to temper her commentary following Hun Sen's latest warnings, explaining that she only engages in "strong, constructive criticism", and does not use "rude words".

"In 2013, Facebook changed society," she said. "More and more people use Facebook and they are more active."

"Now it's not only young people, but also old peopleā€¦ I have looked at the comments on my page, the public are not scared."

Additional reporting by Phorn Bopha

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