Cambodia's freewheeling Internet lands autocratic Hun Sen in quandary

  • TECH
  • Thursday, 22 Jan 2015

DOUBLE EDGED SWORD: For Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (right), who this month celebrated 30 years in power, the Internet's popularity is both a threat and an opportunity.

PHNOM PENH: The CCTV footage is blurry but graphic. A gunman stands over a cringing victim, firing bullet after bullet into his body until the Phnom Penh street is spattered with blood. 

The brazen killing of Cambodian businessman Ung Meng Cheu by an unknown assassin on Nov 22 shocked the nation. It went viral on Facebook and WhatsApp, prompting Cambodia's usually sluggish police to quickly arrest six suspects. 

The footage of the killing showed the burgeoning power of social media in a youthful country where Internet usage has soared in recent years. 

For Prime Minister Hun Sen, who this month celebrated 30 years in power, the Internet's popularity is both a threat and an opportunity. 

It has allowed millions of Cambodians to register widespread discontent with his iron-fisted rule. His Cambodian People's Party (CPP) was re-elected in 2013 with a greatly reduced majority. On the other hand, it has also offered the CPP's ageing leadership a direct route to young voters before the next general election in 2018. 

The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) claimed Hun Sen cheated his way to victory and launched months of post-election street protests. They ended with a bloody military crackdown which killed five garment workers and injured dozens. Many CNRP supporters remain in jail. 

But there was no crackdown on the Internet, as many critics had feared. 

In October, Hun Sen's cabinet set up an ominous-sounding "Cyber War Team" to monitor online content to "protect the government's position and prestige". But so far the unit has done little. 

The government has also scrapped a potentially draconian cybercrimes bill, while police appear to have backtracked on earlier vows to monitor Internet service providers and cellphone data. 

The government would be in a "precarious position" if it clamped down, said Silas Everett, the Asia Foundation's country representative in Cambodia. 

"Given the big youth bulge, moves to restrict, censor or overtly monitor social media users in Cambodia are likely to be received by the public as a step backwards," said Everett. "That understanding (is) reflected in the government's announcement that the cyber-crimes law has been shelved." 

More cellphones than people 

Soaring use of Internet-connected smart phones has allowed Cambodians to sidestep government-controlled television, radio and newspapers. 

In 2008, only about 70,000 people had access to the Internet, according to government statistics. Today, the figure is 3.8 million and most of them are young: about 70% of the country's 14 million people are under 30. 

There are now more cellphones used in Cambodia — 20 million — than there are Cambodians. 

Many government ministers have Facebook or Twitter accounts, and Everett said the Ministry of Interior planned to increase its use of social media. 

Although a late adopter, Hun Sen's Facebook page has more than 640,000 "likes." The page of his arch-rival, the CNRP leader, Sam Rainsy, boasts over a million. 

Murdered businessmen Ung Meng Cheu was the chairman of Shimmex Group, a firm whose interests include real estate and jewellery. His killer didn't even bother hiding his face. 

Police say they are hunting for Cambodian tycoon Thorng Sarat, 37, whom they suspect of masterminding the shooting. The six suspects arrested are Thorng Sarat's parents and bodyguards. 

Neither Thorng Sarat nor family members could be reached for comment. 

The shooting prompted outrage and turned some Internet users into amateur sleuths. 

Thy Sovantha, 19, is a student activist whose Facebook page has nearly 500,000 likes. Two days after the killing, she posted photos showing what she said were striking similarities between the gunman and a policeman later spotted at the crime scene. 

Thy Sovantha compared the policeman's clothes, complexion and other features. "He's 99% like the killer," she concluded. Her post was liked or shared more than 24,000 times. 

This pressured the police "to work faster to catch the real killers", Thy Sovantha told Reuters. 

"Police can't handle crimes as they did before," she said. "They have to work very carefully because people ... have Facebook to follow news." 

General Chuon Sovann, Phnom Penh's police chief, denied that one of his officers was the gunman. Speaking with Reuters, he blamed social media for spreading "false information". 

The six suspects have denied the charges and said that their confessions were coerced. This has fuelled debate over whether police have caught the right people. 

In one notorious case, police arrested the wrong men for killing union leader Chea Vichea in 2004. The two men spent five years in jail before Supreme Court released them last year. 

Chea Vichea's killers remain at large. — Reuters

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