Prime Minister Hun Sen is nearing the pinnacle of Cambodian social media popularity, having now passed opposition leader Sam Rainsy in their heated race for “likes” on Facebook.
As of Tuesday evening, Mr. Hun Sen’s official Facebook page had accrued more than 2,108,800 “likes,” edging out Mr. Rainsy’s official page, which had about 2,094,800 “likes.”
Having gained nearly 370,000 “likes” over the course of the past month, Mr. Hun Sen’s page— created in 2013, but only acknowledged by the prime minister’s cabinet in September—is now the third-most popular in Cambodia, trailing only the VOA Khmer news service and pop star Meas Soksophea.
Since the official recognition of his page, Mr. Hun Sen has been particularly active on the social media platform, regularly posting photographs of official meetings and personal outings—as well as warnings to those who offend him.
In the past week alone, Mr. Hun Sen has posted photos of himself taking selfies with admirers, pushing a woman in a wheelchair, using a hose to water flowers and eating noodles with a street vendor.
In interviews Tuesday, Facebook users around Phnom Penh largely attributed the success of the “Samdech Hun Sen, Cambodian Prime Minister” page to Mr. Hun Sen’s apparent common-man approach to social media—but had mixed takeaways from the premier’s campaign.
At a coffee shop in Chamkar Mon district on Tuesday, Teb San Pisey, 24, the owner of a local health-products firm, said she was impressed with how “normal” Mr. Hun Sen appeared online, but speculated that his main concern was public relations.
“I think Hun Sen gets more likes now because he is going down to the grassroots level. He eats with the people. He talks with the people,” Ms. San Pisey said, adding that she had hit the “like” button on Mr. Hun Sen’s page about two months ago.
“Yesterday, I saw him doing simple actions like eating Khmer noodles at Wat Botum Park. First, he ate alone, then he passed a bowl of noodles to an old woman,” she said. “I think he’s doing this to gain in popularity…and to get the benefits of that, but I cannot be sure.”
Bun Phansey, 42, a tuk-tuk driver waiting for passengers near Phsar Kap Kor, said that he had only recently come back to Facebook after a monthslong hiatus—returning to find his newsfeed inundated with posts from Mr. Hun Sen shared by his Facebook “friends.”
“When I go on my new phone to use Facebook, I now see him giving money to noodle sellers and exercising in the park,” Mr. Phansey said.
“I think what he does is confusing. Maybe it is all just to make people think he loves the people,” he said. “But maybe he does not.”
Waiting for clients at the Sorya Shopping Center, businessman Chap Visal, 36, said he too had noticed the prime minister’s frequent uploads of “informal” photos.
“Sometimes I am not sure if that is his official page or just a personal page,” Mr. Visal said. “I’m not sure if leaders in other countries use Facebook like this.”
He stressed that while he had “liked” both Mr. Hun Sen’s and Mr. Rainsy’s pages, this was not an endorsement of either leader.
“It doesn’t mean I support [them] or not. We just need to know what is going on in politics,” he said. “Sometimes, I am looking at their photos and I click ‘like’ but I don’t really think about it.”
Speaking by telephone on Tuesday, local blogger Tharum Bun said Mr. Hun Sen’s Facebook popularity was likely not simply the result of a grassroots approach, noting that he had seen a number of “sponsored posts” for the prime minister’s page pop up on his Facebook newsfeed.
“One thing you can do to get the content to go viral is spend some money and the viral effect can go even further,” Mr. Bun said. “Anyone can get their marketing message, their political message, or whatever, out easily.”
Asked whether the opposition party was worried about Mr. Hun Sen’s meteoric rise in Facebook support, the CNRP’s deputy public affairs director, Kem Monovithya, said in an email that she was more concerned by what the country’s highest-profile politicians deemed Facebook-worthy.
“Facebook is one among other platforms to communicate, what matters is the content. I’d like to see more substance and less narcissism on this platform from all sides,” she said.
© 2016, Anthony Jensen. All rights reserved.