Strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen has weaponized social media to target critics through vague incitement laws
What should have been the biggest day of San Rotha’s life quickly descended into the worst.
He was taking a shower in preparation for his wedding in the Cambodian border town of Poipet in February last year when military police entered his home and arrested him. His crime: calling the government “authoritarian” in a Facebook video he had posted around four months before.
Rotha was jailed for incitement to discrimination and spent the next year locked up in crowded cell in Kampong Cham prison. After his release last month, Rotha spoke of the trauma his incarceration had inflicted on himself and his family.
“When I got back home and saw my mom, she had become weak and I had also become weak. I feel so desperately upset with my life,” Rotha told ucanews.com. “But I do not feel hopeless with my life. I consider the imprisonment a lesson.”
Rotha is one in a long list of Cambodians who have faced arrest in recent years for criticizing the Hun Sen regime on Facebook.
Until the 2013 general election, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, which has long held a stranglehold over the country’s traditional media, had generally ignored the power of social media. But after the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party almost landed a shock victory off the back of a highly successful Facebook campaign, Hun Sen woke up to the power of the platform.
The prime minister finally took ownership of his Facebook page in 2015 on hitting 1 million “likes” and started regularly posting photos of his day-to-day life and calling out opponents. He now boasts more than 11 million “likes,” although a disproportionately high number of these come from countries like India, the Philippines and Brazil — all known to be hotbeds for “click farms.”
While seeking to reach out to a tech-savvy younger generation, Hun Sen has increasingly weaponized Facebook to target his critics through vaguely worded incitement laws.
Whether it’s a labor activist lobbing a flip-flop at a ruling party poster, an opposition supporter welcoming new tariffs on rice exports, or a man calling the Khmer race a “beast and cheap” after suffering what appeared to be a homophobic attack, Facebook is an increasingly dangerous place for ranting in Cambodia.
Kung Raiya, who was arrested after his final university exam in 2015 after calling for a “color revolution” on Facebook and spent 18 months in a crowded cell in Phnom Penh’s notorious Prey Sar prison, said that cases like his own have had a chilling effect on the country’s netizens.
Raiya has continued to post criticism of the government to his more than 75,000 followers, but he said many are wary of voicing their opinions in comparison to when Facebook started booming around 2012.
“Sometimes I show my ideas to reflect what I think about the bad actions of government members … I always prepare to be in prison again,” Raiya said, adding that he receives regular warnings from peers and opponents to rein in his posts.
Some, he said, were resorting to setting up secondary, anonymous accounts to criticize the ruling party.
Samoeurth Seavmeng, a member of young political forum Politikoffee, said many people were fearful of cyber units aiming to root out the regime’s detractors, resulting in some becoming more cryptic in their criticism
“A few of my friends on Facebook use synonyms and poetry when they want to share their opinions about politics,” she said.
While Facebook is still by far the dominant social media platform, some are beginning to switch to Twitter and Instagram due to a belief that the government’s eyes are less focused there, Seavmeng said, while others are communicating on other, safer messaging apps such as Telegram.
A new Instagram account, appearing to belong to Hun Sen, was launched recently but boasted only a few hundred followers.
Ou Virak, founder of the Future Forum think tank, said that even though the government was clearly targeting individuals over relatively innocuous posts to send a warning to the public, people would still find a way to make their voices heard.
While the government was taking influence from the likes of China, Vietnam and Thailand in its efforts to silence online dissent, Phnom Penh would need to develop its own model, he added.
“It’s not censorship but prosecution. Thais mostly only read and get their information in Thai. They create that censorship from the source, from the content, then they can control the message so that they don’t have to crack down on the end users as long as they crack down on the producers,” Virak said.
“It depends on how you view Cambodia. If you look at a country that mostly lacks original local content in the local language, then the only thing the Cambodian government cares about are posts on Facebook.
“But if more people start reading content in English, censoring the source — the authors — is more difficult.”
Government spokesman Phay Siphan said Cambodians are free to criticize the prime minister and the ruling party on social media as long as it does not descend into calls for revolution.
“I think you have to understand why those people are going to jail. It’s not criticizing, it’s an attempt to provoke a revolution, OK?” he said.
Throwing a sandal at a ruling party billboard or calling the government “authoritarian” did not constitute incitement, the spokesman said, but he blamed Western reporters and translators for misrepresenting cases.
“You have to go back into the criminal code; they explain in very simple Cambodian language. You, as a Westerner, do not understand Cambodian language fully. That confuses everyone,” he said.
“You have the culture from the West. We are not Western, remember that. We have our own culture and we need peace and stability first. That’s our priority.”
After his release from prison, San Rotha is settling back into life in Kampong Cham and plans to finally tie the knot with his partner. He has amassed around 145,000 followers on Facebook but is deciding how to voice his opinions online.
“Before, I thought we had the right to express our views and to make constructive criticism,” Rotha said, adding that he is aware he made a mistake by damaging the leader’s reputation.
“Our freedom to express views is limited,” he said.