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After Oversight Board Recommendation, Hun Sen Sends Mixed Messages on Facebook’s Future in Cambodia

This photo illustration shows a post on Facebook by Cambodian government official Duong Dara, which includes an image of the official Facebook page of Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen before he deleted his account, in Phnom Penh on June 30, 2023. (AFP)

PHNOM PENH / WASHINGTON — Prime Minister Hun Sen is sending different signals about the future of Facebook in Cambodia after he apparently shut down his own account in the face of a potential suspension from the platform.

The oversight board that advises Meta, Facebook’s parent company, recommended the prime minister be suspended due to a video he posted threatening violence against the opposition.

Hun Sen apparently preemptively took down his own page before Meta made a decision on whether to act on the non-binding recommendation.

In a speech on Friday, he criticized the platform, which is hugely popular in Cambodia and has become one of his main communication channels over the past decade. And he said he would communicate through other platforms, such as Telegram and TikTok.

“Don’t insult Hun Sen’s strategy. I destroyed 14 million [Facebook likes], but I can connect with people at all times via Telegram and now I also use Tik Tok,” he said at a gathering with garment workers in Pursat province.

He warned members of the opposition overseas — who also use Facebook as their main communication channel and platform for daily media broadcasts — not to give him a reason to shut down Facebook inside the country.

“I will cut your legs if you are impudent. I will order to shut down Facebook temporarily or forever, but I don’t want to do that, which will affect people,” he said.

FILE - Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen holds a mobile device during the celebrations of the 65th anniversary of the ruling Cambodian People 's Party in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Tuesday, June 28, 2016. (AP)
FILE - Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen holds a mobile device during the celebrations of the 65th anniversary of the ruling Cambodian People 's Party in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Tuesday, June 28, 2016. (AP)

The prime minister advised people to download other social media apps just in case.

However, hours later he released an audio message appearing to soften his threat, and suggested Facebook would not be shut down.

“I would like to reaffirm that I will not be stupid to kill people’s economic activity,” he said in his newly-established Telegram account, which has more than 850,000 subscribers.

Earlier this week, the Meta Oversight Board overturned Facebook’s decision to leave up a video of Hun Sen threatening the opposition, and further recommended the platform suspend his account for six months.

A Meta spokesperson confirmed to VOA Khmer that it did not shut down Hun Sen’s account.

In its recommendation, the oversight board cited 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.”

In the video, he calls on political opponents to choose between the “legal system” and “a bat,” and says should they choose the latter, he “will gather CPP people to protest and beat you up.” He also mentions “sending gangsters to [your] house.”

The oversight board said three Facebook users reported the video five times during a two-week stretch in January. The company initially decided to leave the video up due to its news value — a factor it takes into account with prominent public figures.

The warnings from Hun Sen come just weeks before the national elections, which take place every five years and will decide the prime minister.

The ruling Cambodian People’s Party is expected to win nearly every seat in parliament — if not all of 125 of them — after the main opposition Candlelight Party was barred from competing due to missing paperwork.

Human rights groups who have long criticized Hun Sen and the CPP cheered the oversight board’s decision this week.

“Cambodia PM Hun Sen is finally being called out for using social media to incite violence against his opponents, and he apparently doesn’t like it one bit. That’s the real story about why he’s running away from Facebook,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

“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.”

The International Commission of Jurists also welcomed the decision.

“This decision sends a clear message that political leaders do not enjoy higher protections for any incitement to violence by virtue of their status alone, as the same rules must apply to all users,” said Daron Tan, ICJ associate international legal adviser, in a statement.

The Cambodian government’s response to the decision has not been limited to Hun Sen’s speech.

The Telecommunication Ministry on Friday issued a directive banning Facebook representatives from the country and ceasing public-private partnerships with the company. It cited issues including fake accounts, data privacy risk, and “political interference.”

Kem Monovithya, an official with the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, called Hun Sen’s response “classic” bullying.

“Remember: Cambodia population rely on Facebook for everyday life, notably the platform gives a huge boom to e-commerce uplifting many local biz,” she wrote on Twitter. “A shutdown would be extremely problematic for the regime.”