Cambodian PM wants youth to 'like' him

PHNOM PENH • Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen is taking a belated leap into the digital age in a bid to court young, urban voters as he tries to fend off unprecedented competition from the opposition after three decades in power.

The former Khmer Rouge soldier has started to enthusiastically embrace Facebook for the first time, coming round to the social media platform after almost losing a 2013 election when the opposition won a surge of support online.

The self-styled "strongman" has until recently denied using Facebook, but when an account bearing his name received its millionth "like" last month, he finally admitted it was his, coinciding with the government's moves to ramp up its cyber presence.

"He uses his own messages to reach out to people and to answer questions people want to ask him," said government spokesmen Phay Siphan, when asked why Mr Hun Sen started using Facebook.

Seventy per cent of Cambodia's 15 million population are under 30 years of age, while nine million of its citizens use the Internet.

NET-SAVVY YOUTH

There are all sides of information available already, and youth know a lot - we have education.

UNIVERSITY STUDENT KIM HONG, on the Cambodian government's belated efforts to court people online

Mr Hun Sen's Facebook account, which has 1.2 million "likes", carries images and videos of new infrastructure and credits him with Cambodia's speedy economic development. Some of the 63-year-old's most recent activities were sharing links to what he says are his favourite TV shows, Cambodian Idol and The Voice - local spin-offs of hit American talent contests.

In June, the government held two mandatory classes for 400 heads of Phnom Penh schools, which included showing them how to get Facebook accounts and write supportive messages for the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP), said people who attended the sessions.

Analysts say the CPP is trying to counter a swell of online criticism since the last election, when the Cambodia National Rescue Party carved off a chunk of the CPP's House majority, winning 55 seats to CPP's 68, down from 90 before.

Part of the opposition's advance was due to rapid online courting of young, urban Cambodians angered by issues like forced evictions, low factory wages and state graft.

But many among the younger generation doubt the government's bulked-up online presence will have much sway on their opinions.

"There are all sides of information available already, and youth know a lot - we have education," said 21-year-old university student Kim Hong.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 22, 2015, with the headline 'Cambodian PM wants youth to 'like' him'. Print Edition | Subscribe