By Dung Phan
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen brought his personal Facebook page to life last September, tapping into the digital market after almost losing the 2013 election when the opposition party won a surge of support online. Since then Facebook has played a decisive role in his administration strategies.
He now has more than five million followers on his fanpage, ranking second among world leaders in terms of engagement with Facebook followers. Together with photos of meetings, Hun Sen regularly posts candid shots of himself – sitting on the ground eating noodles, watering plants, relaxing with his family or even wearing a wet singlet. All of the snaps feature an insight into the casual moments of his daily life.
He also live-streams speeches and meetings with villagers and uses the social media site to announce policy changes, some of which are even based on complaints posted to his page. In January, for example, he announced via Facebook that following a public outcry he had decided to abolish the requirement of paying for a driving license for motorbikes with an engine less than 125cc.
“He uses his own messages to reach out to people and to answer questions people want to ask him,” explained government spokesman Phay Siphan.
Targeting young people
Hun Sen often pays close attention to the comments and requests of Cambodian citizens, especially young people and students. In a country where about 60% of the population is under the age of 30, he knows it is vital to gain their support for the upcoming 2018 election.
In March, Hun Sen helped release a 28-year-old man from jail after his girlfriend posted a five-minute video on the Prime Minister’s Facebook page, asking for his intervention. Explaining the case in a speech, Hun Sen said, “I need to have work done quickly. The problems the people face are not small, do not underestimate them.”
And that was not an isolated case. In January, the former Khmer Rouge soldier agreed to reduce the price of final exams for medical students after students petitioned him on social media.
Just last week 50 medical university students posted on his page, asking him to allow them to pass their exams despite having failed. This may seem a strange request but in June the Prime Minister had allowed 99 students who passed the written exam, but failed the oral exams, to take their places at university.
“We are always supporting the smart and good leadership of Samdech (Hun Sen’s title) that brings development to Cambodia,” a student named Bun Samdath wrote.
The influence of “personal gifts”
Despite support from those who benefited from his strategy, experts are concerned that these concessions are weakening the already poor quality of the country’s medical schools. “Many patients are misdiagnosed every day [in Cambodia] because of the poor quality of the medical schools,” said Dr Quach Mengley, a Cambodian-American doctor based in Cambodia.
“Passing and failing an exam is no longer taken seriously due to [a lack of] transparency, and most of the students have to look for their own clinics or hospitals for training.”
Sebastian Strangio, author of the book, “Hun Sen’s Cambodia”, said the way the prime minister used Facebook to gain his popularity is more like his “personal gifts” to the public.”This populist strategy merely reproduces an old pattern in Cambodian politics, which is that improvements in people’s lives are treated as a blessing from the powerful, rather than as part of a democratic social contract,” Strangio explains, implying that the need for structural reforms on bigger issues was being ignored.
Political strategy online
It is a “coincidence” that Hun Sen’s fanpage witnessed a surge of “likes” only two days after the murder of political analyst Kem Ley say authorities. But public suspicions over the murder, mixed with cynicism over this sudden escalation in popularity, mean the prime minister has faced mounting accusations that his digital adoration had been bought from so-called click-farms.
An AFP analysis of Hun Sen’s Facebook followers over the last six months shows that only 55% of the prime minister’s five million followers come from inside Cambodia while many of the “likes” originate in countries notorious for hosting click farms such as India, Indonesia and the Philippines.
Despite the fact that Hun Sen surpassed Sam Rainsy – the country’s most prominent opposition politician – in the digital popularity battle, 82% of Rainsy’s followers are Cambodian.
“It is also a good timing for him to do it now because his popularity is actually sharply declining in relation with recent events and he just wants to show the contrary,” said Rainsy. It remains to be seen whether these recent allegations will harm Hun Sen’s popularity. However he should know targeting young people for popular support can be a double-edged sword.
Many of them are better educated and more sceptical than previous generations. At the very least, they are now less dependent on state media and have greater freedom to get their news online.
It is likely that the policy of governing via social media will continue in Cambodia. So for now, if you are there and have an issue to resolve – Hun Sen’s Facebook page might be a good place to start.