In the latest tit-for-tat round of leaks in Cambodian politics, two rival leakers each released remarkably similar images of emails yesterday purporting to show Prime Minister Hun Sen and his rival Sam Rainsy spending hundreds of thousands of dollars buying Facebook “likes”.
Spokesmen for both sides called the leaks fabricated, and The Post was not able to independently verify much of their contents.
Anonymous leaker “Thleay” – whose name means “leaks” in Khmer and who has targeted his revelations at the premier – yesterday released an image purporting to be an email from Duong Dara, an undersecretary at the Council of Ministers, to Hun Sen himself allegedly discussing the promotion of the premier’s Facebook page and acquisition of likes in March last year. The email, if authentic, would contradict public denials by Hun Sen that his team bought likes.
The email mentions a large sum of money allegedly spent over three months for the same promotions.
Later yesterday, Facebook user “Seiha” – whose name means “August” and whose leaks so far have been aimed to hurt the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party – released a similar image of an email purporting to be from Ueng Chong Leang, a member of Rainsy’s social media team. It too listed costs for promotion of the former opposition leader’s Facebook page, but quoted a relatively smaller dollar amount.
“In the email, I see Sam Rainsy has communicated often with this man, who mostly reports to Rainsy about the expenditure,” Seiha said in a Facebook post. “Sam Rainsy says he is happy that the numbers of likes on Facebook has been increasing.”
While the source of Facebook likes may not seem an overtly political topic, the stakes for Cambodian politicians who use social media have risen exponentially since the 2013 national elections – in tandem with the use of the medium to communicate political messages by both parties. Facebook dominates in a country where nearly a third of the 15 million citizens are active social media users, mostly on mobile phones.
What’s more, the number of Facebook likes grew to be an apparent matter of pride for the prime minister after his embrace of the platform in 2015, but just as quickly became a source of controversy when a Post analysis in February of 2016 found that only 20 percent of Hun Sen’s followers at the time hailed from within Cambodia. Most of the recent additions at the time came from countries like India, Brazil, Philippines and Myanmar.
The revelations raised eyebrows at the time, and prompted Rainsy to accuse the premier of buying likes from so-called “click farms” – an accusation that later saw him convicted of defamation.
Recent data from social media analytics firm Socialbakers show Hun Sen’s page at close to 7.4 million followers, nearly half of whom are from within Cambodia. Forty-five other countries make up the rest, led largely by India, Philippines and Thailand.
Rainsy, however, has close to 80 percent of his 3.8 million fans from the Kingdom and is boosted by likes from neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam.
Dara, supposedly the source of the email about Hun Sen’s account, was quick to say both the email and the address in the leak were fabricated, saying he used a Yahoo account as his official email address and not a Gmail, as seen in the leak.
“My email was fabricated and I have never used the email firstname.lastname@example.org,” he said yesterday.
Dara said he would only occasionally give advice on the use of technology when requested, but was not part of the premier’s social media working group.
Dara also denied any knowledge of whether the social media team was buying Facebook likes for the premier’s social media presence.
Similarly, Chong Leang said in an email yesterday that the email in the leak was not genuine. “Cannot hack real email! Play fair game and if you cannot win then you create fake email to attack. This is fake information,” he wrote on his Facebook page.
Chong Leang and social media colleague Sambath Satya, along with Rainsy, were convicted and sentenced to five years late last year on charges stemming from a video clip, posted to Rainsy’s page, in which opposition Senator Hong Sok Hour presented a “fake” version of a 1979 treaty that purported to dissolve the border between Cambodia and Vietnam.
Chong Leang and Satya were in France last September on the hopes of being granted political asylum. Rainsy echoed Chong Leang, saying a fake email did not warrant a comment from him, and even questioned the sums of money mentioned in it.
“Ridiculous! I am far from being that rich. If I were I would use my money differently,” he said, via email. He claimed that Hun Sen and his Facebook team seemed “destabilized” by the leaks and were instead trying to confuse the Cambodian people.
“The only way for him to counter them is to try to discredit the real leaks by creating fake leaks so that the public would get lost and discard all ‘leaks’, real or fake,” he added.
Earlier in the day, responding to the purported Hun Sen leak, Rainsy had distinguished between legitimately promoting a Facebook page with the hope that it garners more likes, and the “illegitimate and really shameful” practice of buying likes from click farms.
“But what is shocking in a poor country like Cambodia is the huge amount of money – up to 10,000 USD per day – that Hun Sen has been paying to commercially promote his ‘sponsored’ page,” he said, referring to the alleged Hun Sen email.
Rainsy was ordered to pay around $6,000 in fines last year over his accusations Hun Sen’s social media team had artificially bolstered the premier’s likes.
Cham Bunteth, political commentator and an adviser to the Grassroots Democratic Party, said the fact that both leakers were now playing off each other was only aiding in the spread of the conspiracy theories.
“They are each trying to paint the other side in a bad light,” he said. “They are playing dangerous politics and should not be encouraged.” In light of the upcoming elections, he added that a productive debate on the major issues was being sidelined by such distractions.
“I want both parties to advocate for solutions,” he said. “The Cambodian people need solutions, so do not try to create more problems for them.”