PHNOM PENH: Looking more avuncular than authoritarian, Cambodian premier Hun Sen crouches for a selfie for his Facebook page with young scouts — part of a social media blitz selling the strongman’s cuddlier side as he seeks to extend a 30-year grip on power.
The 63-year-old, a wily political survivor who defected from the Khmer Rouge to oversee Cambodia’s rise from the ashes of war, has vowed to remain prime minister until he is 74.
To do so he will need the support of Cambodia’s youth — a tech-savvy demographic whose votes may well be decisive in the next election, slated for 2018.
Two thirds of Cambodia’s 15 million population are aged under 30. Like their contemporaries everywhere they are avid users of social media — a sphere Hun Sen has until recently viewed with suspicion.
In 2013, young Cambodians voted in droves for the opposition, wearied by the endemic corruption, rights abuses and political repression seen as the hallmarks of Hun Sen’s rule.
A self-confessed digital dinosaur, Hun Sen has in recent months launched himself online with an arsenal of new media tools.
He has just debuted a ‘Hun Sen’ App for Android and Apple phones — complementing a new personal website — to allow the public to “receive news about me quickly.”
Meanwhile his official Facebook page, minted in September, already has more than 1.9 million ‘likes.’
“Wherever technology goes, we must be there too,” Hun Sen said recently, also revealing in a Facebook post that he carries five smart phones to stay connected with his countrymen.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy, whose Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) say they were denied a majority in 2013 by vote rigging, has more than two million ‘likes’ on his official Facebook page and has long embraced social media to spread his message.
With less than three years to the next election, the battle for power looks poised to play out online.
What’s the game?
Sebastian Strangio, author of a recent book on the mercurial premier, says Hun Sen’s belated embrace of technology once more illustrates the “tactical flexibility” which has kept him in power over the decades.
“Cambodia’s old political battles have simply shifted online,” he added.
But Hun Sen’s online forays have received a mixed reception from his target audience.
“Awesome for an ex-bumpkin . . . but nothing special for young generation Khmers! They were there long before him,” one Facebook user posted in English on the premier’s page.
Others say the strategy is working, bringing the premier into the daily lives of young people.
University student Kea Ny, 26, told AFP many of his peers have changed their attitudes on the back of his social media outreach work.