Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen denies buying fake 'likes' on his Facebook page

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen looks at his smartphone at a ceremony in Phnom Penh on Feb 25, 2016.
Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen looks at his smartphone at a ceremony in Phnom Penh on Feb 25, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

PHNOM PEHN (AFP) - Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen denied buying fake "likes" for a Facebook page on Thursday (March 17), as the country's rival politicians increasingly battle for social media acclaim.

A self-confessed digital dinosaur, 63-year-old Mr Hun Sen has recently taken to the Web with gusto, posting daily Facebook updates and debuting a tailored app featuring news about his everyday life.

His Facebook page, minted in September, has already garnered 3.2 million "likes", becoming one of the country's fastest-growing and most popular pages.

But his political rival, self-exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy, has now accused the premier of hiring foreigners to create fake Facebook accounts to artificially boost his page's popularity.

The allegation came after the English daily Phnom Penh Post reported that nearly half of Mr Hun Sen's thumbs of approval came from accounts based outside the country, mostly from India.

Mr Rainsy's page has fewer overall "likes", at nearly 2.3 million, but more come from inside Cambodia, according to the report.

Mr Hun Sen batted down the allegations on Thursday while he was speaking at a university graduation ceremony in the capital Phnom Penh.

"I don't know where those 'likes' are from," he said, calling Mr Rainsy a "loser who doesn't agree to lose".

"If I could buy India, I must be really strong. But I am just happy that I, Hun Sen, have been recognised by Indian people and people in other countries as the Prime Minister of Cambodia," he added.

Analysts say the Premier's new but voluminous social media habits are an effort to woo young voters as he seeks to extend his more than 30-year grip on power ahead of local elections next year and a national poll in 2018.

"This is yet another sign Hun Sen is desperately trying to halt his waning popularity," said Cambodian political analyst Ou Virak, adding that both Mr Hun Sen and Mr Rainsy have been spending money to advertise their pages.

Mr Rainsy, who lives abroad to avoid arrest warrants he says are politically motivated, has long embraced social media to spread his message to young voters.

A 2013 election saw young Cambodians vote in droves for his Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), wearied by the endemic corruption, rights abuses and political repression seen as the hallmarks of Mr Hun Sen's rule.

The party says it was denied a majority in the election by vote rigging.