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Cambodia’s politics play out on social media

CNRP leader Sam Rainsy (left) and Prime Minster Hun Sen pose for a selfie in July last year during dinner in Phnom Penh.
CNRP leader Sam Rainsy (left) and Prime Minster Hun Sen pose for a selfie in July last year during dinner in Phnom Penh. Photo supplied

Cambodia’s politics play out on social media

Facebook has long been the key battleground in Cambodian politics, with parties wrestling for the ear of a young and increasingly connected electorate. But recent analytics show a particularly political brand of social media addiction in the Kingdom, even by regional standards, pushing the stakes in the fight for Facebook domination even higher as the country heads into election season.

Data from Facebook’s Audience Insights service reveal that the Cambodian social-media citizenry is much more focused on politics compared with other countries in the region. Eight of Cambodia’s 10 most-“liked” pages are either politically minded news sources like Post Khmer, or political figures like Prime Minister Hun Sen and his long-time adversary Sam Rainsy.

From public and legal disputes between the prime minister and opposition figures over how many Facebook “likes” each has and whether they have been bought from click farms, to damaging leaks of official documents and risqué pictures of politicians and their families, Facebook is the forum of choice.

Data from Singaporean social-media agency We Are Social show that around 5 million of Cambodia’s almost 16 million citizens are active on social media. Despite this, Hun Sen has long boasted a “like” count of over 7 million, many of which originate overseas.

In an exchange that only underscored the importance of the medium in the eyes of Cambodian politicians, Rainsy posted on Facebook last March accusing Hun Sen of buying page likes, which now number 7.6 million, according to analytics firm Socialbakers. Data from Socialbakers show that of those 7.6 million users, only 3.5 million are located in Cambodia. By comparison, 3 million of Rainsy’s 3.9 million followers are from Cambodia. Rainsy’s Facebook post ultimately saw him handed a jail sentence for defamation, a charge widely seen as being used to suppress discussion in Cambodia.

While Cambodians remain enthralled by the dramatic back and forth between the country’s major political figures, other people in the region have a different focus.

Laos’s top ten list, for example, has no political figures, but does include a dating show, Jezebel and Beerlao. Vietnam’s most-liked pages are bloggers and entertainment news, memes, comedians and singers.

The top three pages in the Philippines are a mobile application for Facebook, motivational speaker Mario Teguh and an online poker site.

In Cambodia, meanwhile, where smartphone usage has increased by 140 percent since the last election cycle, Facebook isn’t just a supplemental political arena; it’s often the place where official government statements are made and where the divide between the ruling CPP and opposition CNRP becomes most savage.

In February, Rainsy announced on Facebook that he had filed a subpoena demanding the release of video footage that he believes will prove the assassination last July of government critic Kem Ley’s was state-sponsored.

Both Rainsy and Hun Sen took to Facebook on the anniversary of the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge in April, using the brutal regime as a bogeyman to discredit each other in front of millions of online onlookers.

Leaks publicised through Facebook and purportedly revealing salacious information about both parties have also become a regular feature of Cambodian politics.

In February last year, an anonymous Facebook page accused then-Deputy President of CNRP Kem Sokha of having an affair, leaking alleged recordings of Sokha speaking with a mistress.

Since then, an anti-opposition page called “Seiha”, meaning “August” in Khmer, has released a slew of damaging leaks, depicting CNRP lawmaker Eng Chhay Eang gambling, accusing the party of nepotism and making unsubstantiated accusations of infidelity against CNRP leaders.

In April, a Facebook page called “Thleay”, or “Leaks”, set its sights on Hun Sen and his family, dumping a cache of alleged text messages suggesting questionable dealings between Cambodia’s political and business elites.

“In other Asian countries it’s all entertainment, sports, and fashion. You’ll see nothing that reflects this level of political engagement,” said Silas Everett, Cambodia country representative for the Asia Foundation, which assists with Open Institute’s yearly research paper on internet usage in Cambodia.

Everett said Cambodians’ focus on politics on social media is an “absolute anomaly” compared to other countries in the region, and also noted that Cambodian users engage directly with individuals more than institutions.

“We have seen that people want to have [a] personal connection with their representatives rather than with the institution . . . leaders of political parties tend to do a lot better with engagement than their parties,” said Everett.

Deputy opposition leader Mu Sochua acknowledged that social media will be “extremely important” for the CNRP to spread its message of “hope, solutions and human rights” as her party campaigns for the June 4 commune elections and next year’s national elections.

But in what was perhaps a nod to the medium’s power, an election official last week warned Facebook users not to make any politically charged posts the day before the election, seemingly expanding a traditional pre-election ban on campaigning that usually only applies to official party activities.

Sochua added that Cambodians are particularly politically active on social media today because “every issue is a political issue now”.

Phay Siphan, a spokesman for the government, said Facebook has also been an important tool for the ruling CPP party to establish “two-way communication” with the electorate.

“The prime minister is able to hear, understand, and respond to his people,” Siphan said.

Explaining the rock-star-like social media popularity of political figures in the Kingdom, Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, explained that here, politicians effectively are celebrities.

“There’s a certain magnetism that political leaders have in this country. They’re very much larger than life figures,” he said.

Strangio also believes the public views politics as entertainment.

“Politics in Cambodia is theatre … people enjoy to some extent the constant dance of the political game in this country. They enjoy the rumours, the personalities, the standoffs, the feuds, the public posturing,” he said.

Strangio added that Cambodians are more politically minded now than ever because the country is at a significant crossroads.

“They’re scrutinising the political theatre more closely than ever before what happens in the next election will have a huge effect over the political trajectory of Cambodia for the next decade,” Strangio said.

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