Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday fired the latest shot in the intensifying battle for social media dominance in Cambodian politics, launching his own website and app while taking the opportunity to laud what he sees as his own growing mastery of the medium.
The Samdech Hun Sen app – available only for Android thus far – offers news, photos and videos featuring the 64-year-old premier, an online biography and quick access to the leader’s Facebook page, which has surged to some 1.7 million likes since it was officially endorsed in September.
The content is also featured on the former soldier’s new website, where users can pledge their “support” by supplying their name, age and phone number through an online form.
The opposition’s use of social media to communicate with young voters was an important factor in its surprise success in the 2013 election, when it claimed 55 of the 123 National Assembly seats.
One of the longest serving non-monarchs in the world, Hun Sen has become a prolific Facebook user in recent months in a bid to capture the same demographic.
Yesterday, one clip showed scenes of the premier being warmly greeted by crowds of flag-waving onlookers at the opening of a new flyover in Phnom Penh and even featured footage of the overpass shot by a drone.
“You must know Hun Sen; if Hun Sen plays on Facebook, he will use every means, even drone footage,” the premier told the crowd at the event yesterday. “You have to understand who Hun Sen is. Wherever the technology goes, I will be there.”
The flurry in activity has seen the premier close the popularity gap on Cambodia National Rescue Party president Sam Rainsy, whose page, with 1.9 million likes, has the third-largest audience in Cambodia, only three spots ahead of Hun Sen, according to SocialBakers.com.
With Rainsy in self-imposed exile in Europe to avoid charges widely believed politically motivated, Facebook has provided the terrain for their ongoing sparring.
During his speech, Hun Sen took a sly jab at his opposition counterpart, noting the importance “some people” placed on the number of Facebook likes.
Rainsy’s page yesterday showcased a compilation of brutal violence by authorities in 2014, including clips of a crackdown on protesters in Phnom Penh and footage of garment workers shot by security forces during a strike in the capital.
“Both politicians are really trying hard to compete with each other on Facebook,” said Ou Rithy, a blogger and founder of political discussion group Politikoffe.
“Both of them are trying to show that they are the most popular, that they are good leaders and good husbands in an attempt to get more support from young voters.”
Amid an Internet boom in Cambodia, social media usage has surged, with Facebook the platform of choice.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan said the technology allowed Hun Sen to hear people’s grievances against the state firsthand.
“With his Facebook page, some naughty officials cannot hide from him,” Siphan said.
Director of the Cambodian Institute for Media Studies Moeun Chhean Nariddh said the digital push was motivated primarily by potential votes.
“We can see this as the election gets closer,” Nariddh said.
Suzie Shaw, managing director of Australia-based social media consultancy We Are Social, said when used correctly, the medium could help build trust and “humanise” leaders, though many often failed to use it well, preferring to “broadcast” rather than engage.
And though social media opens a direct line to voters, it also allows voters to talk back, meaning politicians may not always like the result, said Dr Stephen Dann from the Australian National University.
“They have to realise it’s not just their playground,” said Dann, a social media and political expert from the ANU’s College of Business and Economics.
On that note, Hun Sen, who has filled his timeline with holiday snaps, old family album photos and scenes of him visiting the provinces in an apparent charm offensive, last week warned users who criticise or insult him could “be traced”. He singled out netizens who had doctored his beach holiday photos to show him as an amputee.
Yesterday, Hun Sen again took aim at what he called “teenagers from the opposition party” who left “unacceptable” insulting remarks on a post showing him visiting his sick former comrade-in-arms Nhek Huon, a four-star general.
Opposition spokesman Yim Sovann said the party wasn’t threatened by Hun Sen pushing in on their digital turf.
“It is enough if there is a free election; we don’t have to do anything,” Sovann said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING VONG SOKHENG