A document apparently leaked from the Office of the Council of Ministers, titled “Cyber War Room” that allegedly lists the government’s online activists (I’ve redacted the names and phone numbers; highlights not mine)
Rarely do occurrences genuinely merit that exhausted literary phrase, Orwellian. But if a document apparently leaked from the Cambodian government’s Office of the Council of Ministers (OCM) is to be believed, then the story of the Cambodian People’s Party’s (CPP) “Cyber War Room” may well have a legitimate claim to the term.
A photo of the document (pictured above), sent to me and published online by “I Love Cambodia Hot News” (a wildly popular pro-opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party Facebook page) on August 4th is titled “Cyber War Room”. According to the anonymous source who claimed to have leaked the photo, and who spoke via a third party, the list is a group of agents headed up by Hun Manet (son of Hun Sen, the incumbent Prime Minister) who have been enlisted by the government to set up ghost Facebook accounts, spread misinformation and faked documents to undermine the viability of the social media network as a tool for dissent.
As recently as the last national elections in 2008, public criticism of the de facto autocratic government was all but non-existent. Now social media is transforming the political culture: in the 2013 national elections on the 28th July, the opposing Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) struck an unexpected and historic blow to the CPP at the ballot box, largely carried by a connected and informed urban youth movement that is increasingly outspoken. Both sides are now claiming victory amidst opposition allegations of widespread electoral fraud and the country is in deadlock.
Given the state’s virtual monopoly on media outlets, a burgeoning number of Cambodia’s disproportionately young population (after as much as a quarter of the population died during the Khmer Rouge era) consume their news via social media. Government figures show that between 2010 and 2012 internet usage leapt from one to nearly 20%. But Facebook, with nearly a million users, isn’t the sole reserve of dissenters and the site has fast become a fierce psychological battleground for both sides of the political divide. Everyday the social network is ablaze with claims and counter-claims, politically charged spats amongst the league of super users (some with as many as 200,000 followers), and virulently circulating rumours.
The validity of the document and the existence of a CPP “Cyber War” strategy has, unsurprisingly, been difficult to verify. I emailed the CPP to check whether the “leaked” document was indeed from the OCM. No response. None of the people on the list I contacted via Facebook have yet responded. All of the people on the list I was able to call were busy at the time. Maybe they were all at the same Thursday afternoon barbecue. I didn’t hear back from any of them.
The public Facebook accounts of several of the people listed are innocuously typical. Others, including Hun Manet and Chea Chheng (highlighted in the red box, not by me) are openly CPP activists. There’s not in itself anything wrong with this: in Cambodia, you are after all free to support Hun Sen and his 27 years of incumbency should you so choose.
But I did track down one of Cambodia’s social media celebrities, Phe Sovannarith, who has over 160,000 followers. His name doesn’t appear on the “Cyber War Room” list but his online activity over the last month has entailed some truly bizarre twists.
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