Facebook used to cripple opposition in run-up to Cambodia’s elections

Social media company denies it is being misused by ruling government to suppress dissent

Hours before his wedding last month, San Rotha was taking a shower in Kampong Cham, southern Cambodia, when the police came to handcuff and arrest him.

The 29-year-old had been caught calling the southeast Asian country's government "authoritarian" in a video posted to Facebook.

His was just one of around a dozen arrests in Cambodia over the past year, all related to the social media giant, which is playing a key and concerning role in the run-up to July’s election.

Activists say the government is using Facebook – which was initially seen as a forum to engage in political debate – as a bank of ammunition it can use to cripple opposition. Cambodians have been detained and questioned about online posts they made as far back as 2013.


Meanwhile, Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen is facing an attack of his own. Exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy has launched a legal challenge against Facebook in California, calling on it to hand over information as to whether Mr Hun has bought fake fans to boost his 9.5-million-follower profile page. The prime minister denies this.

Facebook has rejected the request, accusing Mr Rainsy of trying to “embroil” the company in a political dispute.

Increased online access comes just as the Cambodian government engages in a series of other measures to repress civil society

"Facebook works hard to protect the integrity of its services and takes user privacy seriously, which is why we carefully evaluate credible allegations of misuse and abuse of the platform," a spokesperson told The Irish Times. "Mr Rainsy . . . hasn't taken necessary steps under federal law to support his requests. Facebook regularly opposes such demands."

Cambodia’s government did not respond to requests for comment.

In this small southeast nation, recent figures showed two million citizens have joined Facebook in the last year. And Facebook is synonymous with the internet. "They're the same thing here," said a telecommunications worker, who asked for anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media.

Phone shops

Inside one of a line of phone shops by Phnom Penh's Central Market, smartphones can be bought for as little as $45. "Facebook," the shop assistant points, making a clear definition between them and the old Nokia handsets without internet.

In rural areas, smartphones are seen as a status symbol, as important as motorbikes and lavish weddings or funerals. Yet, many of those venturing online know little about privacy settings or data collection.

Increased online access comes just as the Cambodian government engages in a series of other measures to repress civil society. Last September, the Cambodia Daily, the country's longest-running English-language newspaper, was shut down after the government slapped it with a $6 million tax bill that its owners said was politically motivated. In November, Cambodia's opposition party was dissolved by the supreme court. The leader of the opposition, Kem Sokha, is in prison charged with treason.

A series of laws have also been brought in focused on curtailing free speech. The 2015 Telecommunications Law criminalises expression via electronic means that causes "national insecurity", and allows for extensive surveillance. In February, the government made insulting Cambodia's King Norodom Sihamoni punishable by a prison sentence of five years and a $2,500 fine.

Dozens of radio stations have been closed, and several journalists thrown in prison.

A human rights lawyer, who didn’t want to be named for fear of government retaliation, explained that authorities were also using “incitement” charges as a way to quell any opposition.

Cambodians living abroad told The Irish Times they suspect Facebook could be used as a tool to monitor them. Government supporters, including Hun Sen's sons, sometimes travel to countries popular with Cambodian emigrants. They'll hold events for expatriates, adding attendees on Facebook afterwards. One Cambodian, who lived abroad for almost a decade, suggested it was because expats are generally well educated, so they're seen a a potential threat.

Troubled history

Cambodia has a troubled history. Between 1975 and 1979, as many as two million people were killed under the Khmer Rouge, a shadow that hangs over the country still. "Do you want to go to the Killing Fields?" is often the first question a tuktuk driver asks tourists. Children in history lessons discuss how their grandparents were the only survivors from their villages, and still won't detail what they saw.

In the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), close to the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, director Youk Chhang's mission is to make sure Cambodian people remember what can happen when an authoritarian government comes to power.

He admitted he’s worried about the direction Cambodia is going in. While the country is less isolated than it was, Mr Chhang said, “the current situation concerns everybody.”

"Millions of Cambodians are living in Thailand, in South Korea, in America, so space individually is much bigger. But . . . it's not about the returning of the mass atrocity, it's about good governance that responds to the need of the people."

His organisation doesn’t use social media much. “Social media is expensive, and requires special skills, and that is something we can’t afford,” he said. “Facebook becomes polluted. It’s something very unreliable at giving truthful information.”

It is clear that the government's fear tactics have been effective because there's been a distinct lack of public protests recently

His complaints echo those of other Cambodian activists. From October 2017 until this month, the country was part of an experiment Facebook held in six countries. Called the “Explore Feed”, it meant a user’s newsfeed became dominated by pages whose owners pay for ads.

Targeted sanctions

In an interview with The Irish Times, Soeung Sen Karuna, a senior investigator with local rights group ADHOC, said Facebook must take responsibility for destroying "one of the few spaces in which independent voices can share information".

He also called for targeted sanctions against the Cambodian government, while encouraging the international community to support those who are being arrested and others working for human rights.

Meanwhile, in the Royal Palace, a guide tells visitors the constitutional monarch no longer sits on his throne because it would be disrespectful to prime minister Hun Sen and his growing power. “They’re meant to be equals,” she explains, “though really the government is more powerful.”

Hun Sen is already the world’s longest-serving prime minister. A former Khmer Rouge fighter, he has been in charge of Cambodia since 1985.

In an interview with The Irish Times, Amnesty International's Olof Blomqvist said: "Prime minister Hun Sen has long announced that he will defend power at all cost. He has kept that promise ever since and has not shown any interest in slowing down before the elections.

“It is clear that the government’s fear tactics have been effective,” Mr Blomqvist added, “because there’s been a distinct lack of public protests recently. The Cambodian population has been stifled in its free and peaceful expression and, while frustrated and hungry for change, also afraid of being harassed for speaking their minds.”