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Facebook is no replacement for functioning state institutions

Editor,

Two articles in the Phnom Penh Post last week shed more light on Prime Minister Hun Sen’s use of Facebook, revealing that while around half of those who have “liked” his page have done so from outside Cambodia, he enjoys an impressive rate of engagement by his followers.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan has said that the purpose of using Facebook “is for good governance, two-way communication”.

In a blog for CNN ahead of Cambodia’s 2013 national election (Young voters key to new mood in Cambodia), one of the authors of this letter (Rupert Abbott) described how online social networks were enabling young people to “access information, discuss ideas and organise”.

The use of Facebook to connect with the public is a positive step – with new avenues for expression and transparency always welcome in a country where respect for freedom of speech, including online, is fragile.

But Facebook is no replacement for functioning state institutions that ensure sustainable good governance and serve the interests of the Cambodian people – it may even undermine them.

Some analysts in Cambodia point to important recent reforms in key areas, including education, commerce and tax, but the deep reforms touted by the ruling party after the 2013 election are taking time.

The promised public forums, at which ministers would meet with the public and civil society to hear and address concerns, are a distant memory.

The prime minister has reportedly called out elements of the executive for underperforming and failing to reform, threatening a cabinet reshuffle. Corruption, cronyism and illegal resource exploitation continue, to his stated dismay.

Meanwhile, the role of parliament has been deliberately and brutally undermined. In a new low, opposition parliamentarians have been beaten up in front of the National Assembly.

The deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha has been stripped of his National Assembly vice presidency, and his home has been attacked.

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy – whose 1.83 million Cambodia-based Facebook fans reportedly outnumber the prime minister’s 1.73 million – is in exile again to avoid legal charges widely seen as politically motivated. He is now facing a new criminal defamation lawsuit for his comments on the ruling party’s methods to attract “likes” for the prime minister’s Facebook page.

The state of the judiciary is precarious also. Its budget is very low, and its officers are among the least trusted officials in Cambodia.

Having spent years following sensitive cases with the Cambodian Center for Human Rights and Amnesty International respectively, the authors of this letter can point to numerous examples where human rights defenders have been subjected to unfair trials and punishment for peacefully exercising their rights, and others where perpetrators of serious abuses enjoy impunity.

Facebook may play a positive role in helping the prime minister and others in government communicate policies and gauge public opinion, but it is no substitute for and should not be a diversion from building strong and stable state institutions that act in the interests of the many rather than the few.

Meanwhile, it completely excludes the millions of Cambodian citizens who cannot access the internet.

Ad hoc interventions based on Facebook “likes” and “comments”, such as resolving cases before the courts, bypass and therefore undermine existing state institutions that are meant to deal with such matters.

Substance over form is needed – genuine, systematic reforms that help break the cycles of corruption, inequality and injustice, through building the institutions envisaged in Cambodia’s constitution that serve the public and not private pockets and vested interests.

These include: An executive branch that is representative and responsive, governing and implementing laws and policies through a professional civil service in which progression is based on merit.

A parliament that is a forum for developing, debating and passing laws, with opposition parties shadowing and acting as a check on the government, without fear of reprisal.

And an independent judiciary that makes decisions based on law and fact, not due to interference and corruption, and that prevents and punishes abuses of power.

Such institutional reforms would go a long way towards ensuring more sustainable good governance in Cambodia and creating an environment in which people can enjoy their human rights and share in more equal development – something which almost everyone would surely “like”.

Ou Virak (@ouvirak) is founder and director of the Future Forum think tank and the former president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.
Rupert Abbott (@RupertBAbbott) is a human rights lawyer and consultant and the former deputy Asia-Pacific director at Amnesty International.

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