A tweak this month in the way Facebook organised its newsfeed in Cambodia has been accused of playing into the increasingly dictatorial government’s hands.
Instead of seeing posts from Facebook pages in their newsfeed, Cambodian users had to go to a new section called Explore Feed to see content that previously popped up automatically.
Facebook surpassed television as Cambodians’ most popular source of news last year, according to the Asia Foundation, with around half of respondents saying they used the network.
One Cambodian vlogger called Catherine Harry told the BBC that a new video on Saturday was watched 2,000 times, compared to a previous average of about 12,000.
In 2012, two opposition parties, the Sam Rainsy Party and the Human Rights Party, merged to establish the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP). In the 2013 general election, the Cambodian People’s Party suffered a major setback when it lost 22 parliamentary seats, although it still retained a majority. The opposition claimed the election was rigged and major protests erupted.
Facebook helped power the CNRP’s gains in 2013 and has been seen as one of the only places for dissent in a country ranked 132nd out of 180 in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index this year.
Democratic rights have been more severely restricted this year.
In February 2017, Hun Sen changed the Law on Political Parties so that the CNRP could be dissolved for “jeopardising the security of the state … provoking incitement”.
In parallel with the restriction of democratic rights, funding from Hun Sen’s non-democratic ally, China, has increased.
And Cambodia has been told it should expect a massive influx of Chinese investment under Beijing’s “One Belt, One Road” scheme.
Guoyou Song, executive director at the Shanghai-based Asia-Pacific Research Centre, told a seminar that China was Cambodia’s most important strategic and economic partner.
As the Phnom Penh authorities retreat from democracy and ties with the west, China has adopted a quasi-colonial role in the former French colony.
“Cambodia has a lot of advantages to attract Chinese foreign direct investment [FDI] in regards to the One Belt, One Road initiative,” Guoyou told the gathering.
“China, nowadays, is willing to provide funds to other countries in multiple ways. So it will be good for the Cambodian economy.”
China is Cambodia’s main source of FDI, with US$19.2 billion invested between 1994 and 2014, the National Bank of Cambodia and National Institute of Statistics announced last year.
Cambodia is fast abandoning its commitment to democracy. Picture credit: Pixabay