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Cambodia’s Prime Minister Ditched Facebook, But His Followers Aren’t Following Him

6 minute read

“I have decided to stop using Facebook, on which I have more than 14 million followers,” Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen told his followers on Telegram last week.

The announcement came just hours after the Oversight Board of Meta, Facebook’s parent company, recommended his account be suspended. But before Facebook could break up with him, the 70-year-old strongman ruler swiftly ditched the platform first.

Now, however, it seems like Hun Sen is finding it hard to recreate his popularity elsewhere.

While his Telegram channel, launched in May last year, has amassed close to a million followers, his one-week-old TikTok account sits at just about 100,000 followers—both a far cry from what he had with Facebook.

Read More: 40 Years After the Fall of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia Still Grapples With Pol Pot’s Brutal Legacy

Once a prolific Facebook user, the Prime Minister regularly broadcasted his daily life and political activities to 14 million followers on the platform—a whopping audience, though he faced allegations of buying likes to boost his profile.

Now, in perhaps a sign of desperation, the strongman appears to be resorting to unconventional measures to boost his following.

On Thursday, Hun Sen requested to meet the owner of a TikTok account dedicated to posting content about him—one of several such accounts that have significantly more followers than he has himself—saying that he “may take control of the unofficial account as the followers of it are his fans anyway,” the pro-establishment newspaper Khmer Times reported.

Here’s what to know about the situation.

Why exactly did Hun Sen Leave Facebook?

Last week, Meta’s independent internal review committee advised Facebook to suspend Hun Sen over a video he posted in January. In the now-deleted video, which had amassed 600,000 views, the Prime Minister told his political opponents to choose between the “legal system” and “a bat,” and threatened to beat them up.

“Given the severity of the violation, Hun Sen’s history of committing human rights violations and intimidating political opponents, as well as his strategic use of social media to amplify such threats, the Board calls on Meta to immediately suspend Hun Sen’s Facebook Page and Instagram account for six months,” the Oversight Board said in a statement.

Read More: Facebook’s “Oversight Board” Is a Sham. The Answer Is Regulating Social Media

Cambodia’s foreign affairs ministry decried the recommendation as “political in nature.” But international observers hailed the Oversight Board’s decision as a precedent for other autocrats.

“This kind of face-off between Big Tech and a dictator over human rights issues is long overdue,” Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director of Human Rights Watch said in a statement issued on Thursday.

“The stakes are high because plenty of real world harm is caused when an authoritarian uses social media to incite violence—as we have already seen far too many times in Cambodia.”

Following the Oversight Board ruling, Hun Sen threatened to ban Facebook in the country last week—but walked back on the threat just hours later, citing the large number of people in the country who rely on the platform to sell products. Cambodian authorities did, however, announce on Tuesday that the 22 members of Meta’s Oversight Board were no longer welcome in the country.

“A clear trend has emerged: Cambodia is slowly untangling its politics from Facebook,” Will Brehm, an associate professor at University College London who researches political economy in Southeast Asia, tells TIME. “Given Facebook’s role in eroding democracy in many countries around the world, this is good news.”

The social media giant has previously received criticism for its record of—inadvertently or otherwise—aiding authoritarian regimes around the world, from stifling free speech in Vietnam to amplifying anti-Rohingya content in Myanmar.

But in recent years, the company has demonstrated a greater proactiveness to sanction even the most prominent public figures: former U.S. President Donald Trump was banned from Facebook in 2021 after he praised those engaged in the violence at the Jan. 6 Capitol Hill riot, though his account was reinstated earlier this year.

Does Hun Sen even need social media popularity?

Facebook has long been an important way for Hun Sen to connect with the Cambodian public. Over the past decade, he has “artfully mobilized the platform to support his increasing hold on power,” Astrid Norén-Nilsson, a senior lecturer at the Centre for East and South-East Asian Studies at Lund University, tells TIME.

“He encouraged people to express their concerns to government officials on Facebook for greater accountability, and used his own Facebook page to cultivate a novel emotive, intimate relationship with the populace through carefully curated selfies and select photos inviting followers into his private family circle.”

But even if Hun Sen fails to find the same popularity on TikTok and Telegram, experts say that his social media presence may have little effect on his dominance at the polls this month, as his election campaign kicked off over the weekend.

The upcoming election has been widely criticized as neither free nor fair and has been labeled by opponents as a “joke” after the only opposition party was disqualified, leaving Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party to maintain its grip on power.

Read More: Outcry at Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Bid to Shut Down Independent Media

“The spat with Facebook will likely have no impact on the July elections,” says University College London’s Brehm. “He has effectively silenced any opposition long before the Meta Oversight Board announced its decision.”

Still, despite Hun Sen’s high-profile departure from Facebook, it seems that other politicians in the country are unlikely to follow suit. As the country’s top social media site—boasting 11.6 million users among a population of 16.6 million—Facebook has proven to be an important tool for political mobilization and publicity. And Hun Sen’s struggles to gain a following on TikTok aren’t likely to inspire a wider shift.

“Facebook is the social media platform of choice in Cambodia, across generations and demographic groups,” says Norén-Nilsson, adding that the “enmeshment of private and political life on Facebook” has become an “ingrained habit” across the country.

Tellingly, Hun Manet, Hun Sen’s son and expected successor, remains active on Facebook—where he just shared a video montage of his recent visit to a local garment factory.

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