Social Media’s Growing Influence on Cambodian Politics

Note: This following analysis piece in the East-West Center’s Asia Pacific Bulletin No. 222 is my first major policy publication. It is about Cambodia’s nascent ‘digital democracy’ that is emerging around this year’s national elections. The PDF version is available here.

ANALYSIS

Social Media’s Growing Influence on  Cambodian Politics 

By Sophat Soeung, July 23, 2013

One month before Cambodia’s general election scheduled for July 28, the government announced a directive banning local radio stations from airing foreign programs during the campaign and election period. The directive temporarily banned programs from Western broadcasters including Voice of America and Radio Free Asia’s Khmer-language services. In response, the Cambodian public immediately turned to Facebook and other social media voicing their condemnation, followed by the US government and international media outlets, resulting in the government reversing the ban the next day. Both social media and the Internet are increasingly changing the dynamics of election politics worldwide, especially in countries with a high youth-bulge, and Cambodia is no exception to this trend.

Observers widely agree that the ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) will win the election, returning incumbent Prime Minister Hun Sen to power, a position he has held since 1985. As in its 2008 landslide victory, the CPP continues to maintain strong rural support, while presiding over rapid economic growth and maintaining a tight grip on the country’s media. However, social changes–including social media–over the past five years, along with political changes, will likely ensure that the CPP is short of its earlier landslide win.

An example of political change is that the two main opposition parties merged into one party, the new Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) under the leadership of Sam Rainsy, who has now returned from self-imposed exile in France to join his deputy, Kem Sokha, also a seasoned politician, for last-minute campaigning. In addition, the CPP is less able to use nationalism to attract the votes of the “post-Khmer Rouge baby-boomers”–those born after 1979–who are 36 percent of registered voters. It is this demographic that presents the single greatest opportunity for the opposition, a cohort that uses the Internet and social media rather than state-controlled media as an important source of news.

Social media, especially Facebook, is a recent phenomenon in Cambodia and to date has not been subject to governmental controls. Government figures show that from 2010 to 2012, Internet penetration in Cambodia jumped from one percent to nearly 20 percent, partly due to the proliferation of mobile devices. Facebook has emerged as the most popular platform and has registered over 900,000 users, including social-media savvy members of the opposition.

Even before opposition politicians began utilizing social media tools, civil society and human rights groups were already using them amidst Cambodia’s otherwise highly restricted media climate. Activists opposing Phnom Penh’s controversial Boeung Kak lake development project, in particular, utilize social media to gain public attention in a city with high Internet penetration. Videos of their protests have gained a lot of traction in local and foreign media and won them international recognition. Facebook has evolved from primarily an entertainment website to an alternative news source and platform for self-expression, and a way to bypass the state-controlled one-sided views on radio and television.

A small–and possibly staged–pro-government protest at the Cambodian Mekong University in May could be a watershed in Cambodian politics. This was an incident where protesters criticized visiting UN Human Rights envoy Surya Subedi regarding his negative report on human rights violations in Cambodia. Just two months before the election, the protest attracted an unprecedented youth reaction online–an “anti-protest” to the protesters. For the first time many young Cambodians showed interest in a political issue and freely expressed their views. Some uploaded personal videos criticizing the protest against Subedi that they considered unrepresentative of their views. One day after the online “anti-protest” reaction, Cambodia’s National Election Committee (NEC) issued an appeal for social media users to refrain from spreading misinformation.

The NEC’s call for public caution could help expand the impact of social media in Cambodian politics, a trend that some claim is already irreversible. CNRP opposition leader Sam Rainsy and others started their online election campaign to attract young voters well ahead of official campaign season. By June, Rainsy had claimed “victory” over Hun Sen for Facebook popularity. Not long after that declaration, Hun Sen’s Facebook page began posting more regular updates, often responding directly to issues raised by the opposition. Needless to say, the online campaign has allowed the opposition to bring up issues of interest to young voters–human rights, social justice, corruption, education, and unemployment. Online at least, the election process seems free and fair.

The impact of social media for now, however, is extremely limited in rural areas–the traditional electoral base of the CPP. Rural Cambodians primarily rely on state-controlled radio and television for news and information. Perhaps for this reason, the Internet in Cambodia has remained uncensored, which some proudly call “digital democracy.” On the same day as the NEC statement, Cambodian Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith said his government does not plan to shut down Facebook, but warned that “improper” content might be met with lawsuits. Over time, as the Internet expands into rural areas, social media will likely become more vulnerable to government censorship, especially under a CPP administration.

Irrespective of the upcoming election results, social media has created a nascent and more pluralistic online political environment where Cambodians exchange different political viewpoints freely. These are significant emerging trends that will impact youth political behavior beyond the July elections. Cambodia is following other Southeast Asian states in this trend, most recently witnessed in Malaysia’s closely fought May election.

Looking ahead, the international community, ASEAN democracies, and the US government should further invest in Cambodia’s emerging digital democracy and ensure that the Internet remains free. The US Embassy in Phnom Penh is to be commended for its many pioneering projects with youth and civil society–from blogging, to technology conferences and communications innovation. These initiatives have, however, done little to open up state-controlled traditional media to other political groups–something that the international community should continue advocating for. As freedom of expression continues to shrink off-line in Cambodia, it looks as if the role of digital democracy via social media will only increase in this election process. Furthermore, for Cambodia’s increasingly outspoken younger generation, online democracy may well hold the promise of off-line change beyond July’s election.

About the Author

Sophat Soeung is a Research Fellow with the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace and an independent journalist based in Washington, D.C.

Opposition Looks To Facebook for Election Push

A screenshot of the Facebook page of Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy on June 14, 2013, showing a fan number of over 70,000. That number, he claims, makes him the most popular Cambodian politician on Facebook, out-beating another page profiling Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen. (VOA Khmer)

A screenshot of the Facebook page of Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy on June 14, 2013, showing a fan number of over 70,000. That number, he claims, makes him the most popular Cambodian politician on Facebook, out-beating another page profiling Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen. (VOA Khmer)

Original: Sophat Soeung, VOA Khmer, June 20, 2013

WASHINGTON — Editor’s note: With no access to traditional media ahead of the July national election, Cambodia’s opposition is increasingly turning to the country’s small but growing online media to attract voters. Last week, opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who is president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, celebrated online “victory” over Prime Minister Hun Senafter his Facebook page attracted more 70,000 fans. That number, he claims, makes him the most popular Cambodian politician on Facebook leading into the July 28 elections. He spoke to VOA Khmer via phone last week.

Listen to full interview in Khmer here.

What does your “victory” mean?
I want to take this opportunity to thank all my Facebook fans, especially the youth. The majority of my fans are those under 30; from around 18 to 30 years old constitute the largest group. They are mostly educated, with computer and English skills, so they are the educated and future leaders of the country, this Facebook generation. Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Facebook page is fairly popular, with around 67,000 fans. But this page is already three years old, while my Facebook page is only three months old. Within these three months, I have basically surpassed him in terms of popularity. The content that is shared on Mr. Hun Sen’s page are official and important documents that must come from the government or someone close to Mr. Hun Sen. No one else would have such documents.

Why do you think that the Internet/social media in Cambodia has remained free and uncensored?
This is a technological, social and cultural trend occurring worldwide, especially among the young generations, which no one can stop. Even in China, which we consider a communist and highly restricted country, the government cannot shut down Facebook or the Internet. They might regulate or censor it, but they cannot shut it down. So even a superpower like China cannot shut down the Internet, let alone an aid-dependent country like Cambodia.

Are you concerned that the Cambodian government might try to shut down Facebook during the election?
I believe that Mr. Hun Sen’s government has an interest in blocking Facebook, because it has encouraged the educated youth to share and exchange news and ideas freely and safely, leading to a change of mindset. So I believe the Cambodian People’s Party is very concerned about the growth of Facebook and will probably attempt to shut it down. But I don’t think they will be able to do so, to prevent that trend.

You are targeting young voters. But since you don’t have a physical presence in Cambodia, don’t you think there is a limitation to use Facebook to reach especially people in the rural areas?
I believe that my online presence has more impact than my physical presence. That’s because if I go somewhere, I’m only physically present in one place; while on Facebook, I can simultaneously be present in countless places. I can even reach people in their homes anytime and engage with them on a very intimate level.

Malaysia which recently had an election also has a similar political climate to Cambodia. Observers say social media helped the opposition there, but Malaysia has a much higher Internet penetration than Cambodia. How optimistic are you about Facebook’s impact on the upcoming Cambodian election?
I believe there is momentum in social media growth. I was recently in Malaysia and met opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who has gained tremendous support, making the opposition win the popular vote although getting fewer seats than the ruling party. The opposition’s winning of the popular vote was in large part due to the help from the Internet and Facebook. We are not at the same level in Cambodia because the number of Internet users is still small. But it is increasing fast. From the latest data I have, there are over 1 million Facebook users.

You were recently quoted by a news organization as saying that you plan to announce the results from polling stations live on Facebook. Can you give further details?
Once we get the results from a ballot count at each polling stations, we will immediately make it public on [Facebook], YouTube. That way, we can immediately calculate the results nationwide and document the accurate count. In the election five years ago, when there was no Facebook or barely any smartphones, we couldn’t follow the results as closely as that time. Then they could change and manipulate the numbers at will. This time there will be transparency in the vote count, as we can immediate record and publicize the numbers.

Even though you can reach your voters via Facebook, do you have any updates on a possible return to Cambodia before the election?
If the upcoming election were legitimate, free and fair by international standards, I would return immediately. But if this election is just a joke, there is no need for me to be there.

A Twitter Moment: When Followers Surpass Followings

Note: This is a repost of an older blog post of December 4, 2012.

My Twitter account in December 2012.

My Twitter account in December 2012.

Since my last two major ‘Twitter moments’ – when I made my tweets public and when I actually ‘started’ tweeting – another milestone worth noticing is when recently the number of my followers (160) have surpassed that of followings (150).

Not a big deal? To be honest, I’m still trying to figure out how to exactly use Twitter meaningfully and I’m far from becoming one of those Twitter addicts. But having increasingly more followers – more people following you than the other way round – is a good source of encouragement. It’s an indication that my tweets are useful for some. But even without those numbers, Twitter as a platform is more useful in so many other ways, than Facebook.

Let me know when you discovered your first #TwitterMoment and whether followers/-ings numbers matter as much to you. And follow me at @SophatSoeung!