After more than two years of denials from Prime Minister Hun Sen that a Facebook fan page bearing his name really belongs to him, the premier’s cabinet has acknowledged that it does—shortly after the page garnered its one-millionth “like.”
Mr. Hun Sen has long denied that either he or his cabinet manages the highly active “Samdech Hun Sen, Cambodian Prime Minister” page, which has lagged in popularity behind opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s page over its lifetime.
The prime minister even lambasted Mr. Rainsy in a public speech a month before the 2013 national election after Mr. Rainsy boasted of having surpassed the prime minister in terms of Facebook likes.
“You won by running alone. I do not even have any Facebook,” Mr. Hun Sen said in June 2013. “I would like to send a message to all teenagers who participate in these Facebook forums. [Mr. Rainsy] is cheating to get your likes.”
“I have no Facebook to compete with anyone.”
At the time, the Hun Sen page only had 67,000 “likes,” but it surpassed 1 million late last month and now boasts some 1.07 million—a figure that is growing by 67,000 a month, according to social media statistics site Socialbakers.
With the growth in followers, Mr. Hun Sen’s cabinet released a short statement on Sunday night confirming Mr. Hun Sen is an avid user of social media—and, for the first time, clarifying that the page does belong to him.
“The cabinet would like to clarify that the official Facebook account of Samdech Akamoha Sena Padei Techo is ‘Samdech Hun Sen, Cambodian Prime Minister,’” the statement said, using Mr. Hun Sen’s full royal honorific.
The provenance of the page came as news even to some government officials, with Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan saying Monday he had never been entirely sure who was behind the “Samdech Hun Sen” page.
“Even for myself, it was only yesterday that I learned from his cabinet that it is official,” said Mr. Siphan, who “liked” the Facebook page himself long ago, while also telling reporters that its content could not be attributed to Mr. Hun Sen.
Yet Mr. Siphan said he was glad to see the prime minister now has an official outlet for connecting with voters.
“The people who add him, their voices will be heard. The prime minister is the chief minister, and he has to learn from the people and their reactions to his policies. It is more transparency and more efficiency for the administration.”
In May last year, when Mr. Hun Sen had about 265,000 “likes,” a post on the page was cited by Australian media as confirmation of Cambodia’s deal with Australia to resettle asylum seekers.
Still, officials continued to deny that announcements on the page could be attributed to Mr. Hun Sen. However, CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said Monday that the page had long been managed by Mr. Hun Sen and his cabinet.
“In fact, he has used Facebook since a long time ago, but it has never been announced for official recognition,” Mr. Eysan said, acknowledging that the success in attracting 1 million “likes” contributed to a decision to make it official.
“We started it first as a test,” he said. “Then we saw that it has attracted popularity and is very popular among citizens, so we made it official to widen communication between top leaders and the people.”
In November, Mr. Rainsy held a garden party at the CNRP’s headquarters in Phnom Penh to celebrate his one millionth Facebook “like,” and today boasts 1.68 million fans on the social networking site.
Mr. Rainsy said Monday that he wished to congratulate Mr. Hun Sen on a Facebook page he called “very attractive and well run,” but that he believed social media was more important for his party than for Mr. Hun Sen’s.
“Facebook is very important for us because there are no TV stations available to the opposition. All the TV stations are directly controlled by the ruling party and reflect the views of the ruling party, so it is the only outlet of electronic communication that can reach a wide population,” Mr. Rainsy said.
Many observers and the CNRP itself have attributed the opposition party’s strong performance at the 2013 national election to its social media presence, which broke the CPP’s decades-old stranglehold on the media landscape.
Mr. Hun Sen has since granted the CNRP permission to create the first opposition-run TV station, which is due to launch this year, but Mr. Rainsy said TV would not supplant the importance of Facebook for people under 35 years old.
“It will remain as important as today, because of the way the tools operate. The segments of the population are different. The Facebook audience is young and mobile people, and also better educated people,” Mr. Rainsy said.
Mr. Rainsy said he expected to reach 2 million “likes” next year—in time to push for change in the 2017 commune elections. In contrast, Mr. Hun Sen’s page marked its first full day as an official account with an appeal against change.
“At a time when the nation is developing, we need to keep up with the changes. Hun Sen has thought critically and has a very clear vision about the needs of Cambodian citizens and foreigners living and working in Cambodia,” a post on the page said.
“The opposition party in Cambodia always says things about change that are very similar to the change in the Middle East, which has been at war—causing disasters, acts of terrorism, and much destruction of human life and property.”
“This is a change toward devastation that Cambodia absolutely does not welcome,” the post concluded.