Lim Kimsor says she is tired after years of activism — of receiving threats from authorities, being blocked from gatherings with local communities, and, most of all, seeing people become fearful of engaging with her.
Kimsor, formerly one of the faces of environmental group Mother Nature’s campaign videos, watched by millions on Facebook, now sells organic Cambodian meals online. Since leaving the group in February, she rarely shares anything online about environment issues.
“People are afraid to be involved,” she says. “People are afraid for their safety.”
Song Rattana, a 32-year-old insurance agent, says she likes to read about social issues and politics on Facebook, but doesn’t dare to click “share” or even “like.”
Her clients might be ruling party-affiliated and stop doing business with her, she says while sitting outside Phnom Penh’s Build Bright University, flipping through some work documents.
If [people] say something wrong, they will go to jail. …I think people understand a lot about social issues, but they just don’t dare to express it.
Rattana’s co-worker, Chin Thida, chimes in that the issues are just too sensitive and people don’t want to get in trouble.
“If [people] say something wrong, they will go to jail,” the 26-year-old says. “I think people understand a lot about social issues, but they just don’t dare to express it.”
A tuk-tuk driver, who declined to give his name for fear of repercussions, also says he keeps up-to-date on political and social issues through Facebook — but never clicks share or like. He says he is afraid of going to jail.
“Who will take care of my wife and my children?” he asks.
Pressure has mounted on public discourse in recent years and months — many activists have been arrested over online campaigns, and the government has an increasing number of surveillance methods at its disposal.
Academic studies say Facebook “likes” and “shares” of political content are widespread in Cambodia and a form of political engagement in a narrowing civic space. But even those small actions have become too risky for some.
“I think the threat level is at ‘Defcon 1’ at this point for activists,” says Sophal Ear, a professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles. “The options are either to go silent or to continue to do what they feel they have to do and face the terribly unfair and unjust consequences of being punished by the authorities.”
‘A Collective Projection of Loathing’
Academic research has shown an apparently widespread desire among Cambodian Facebook users to engage in political content.
In 2018, 79 percent of Phnom Penh Facebook users “liked” posts about political or social issues, and more than 60 percent reposted or shared political content, according to a survey by University of Auckland researchers.
“The overwhelming majority of Cambodian Facebook users surveyed (91.8%) engaged in at least one of the twelve online political and civic activities asked about,” says the survey, based on 500 face-to-face interviews and published last year.
Other researchers have characterized Cambodian Facebook users’ likes and shares as a savvy form of “everyday politics.”
A Facebook post about a government official’s misdeed going viral, for example, was “a collective projection of loathing” that could elicit an official response. It nevertheless “diffuses attention away” from those who share the post, says a 2018 paper by Mun Vong and Kimhean Hok of the Cambodia Development Resource Institute.
“Attention instead concentrates on the content generator who is legally responsible if the content or act is deemed illegal,” the paper says.
[T]he main function of the Great Firewall is to censor not specific information, but discussion of protests or other activism, preventing groups from organizing outside of official channels or taking to the streets.
But digital surveillance is on the rise in Cambodia, and even the limited space left for likes and shares could be under threat.
A draft of a government order to establish a “National Internet Gateway,” circulated among journalists in recent days, would give the government power to block “all network connections that affect safety, national revenue, social order, dignity, culture, traditions and customs.”
Telecommunications Ministry spokesperson Meas Po shrugs off questions about the gateway’s potential for censorship, saying the document was merely a draft. “We won’t limit internet use. What we plan is only to control the gateway operators,” Po says. “Only that, so please don’t worry.”
However, James Griffiths, an expert on China’s “Great Firewall” — that country’s method of widespread digital censorship — says such surveillance systems can effectively thwart political engagement.
“[T]he main function of the Great Firewall is to censor not specific information, but discussion of protests or other activism, preventing groups from organizing outside of official channels or taking to the streets,” Griffiths says.
“Were Cambodia to go down this route, there is no reason to expect that it could not stamp down on criticism of censorship along with whatever else the government deems illegal to say or do online.”
Open up, and you will be beaten up. So what can we do?
But Cambodian internet users’ reliance on Facebook would be an obstacle for authorities; Chinese surveillance relies on the cooperation of private companies, he says. “[R]elying on a foreign company to do your censorship for you obviously has its limits.”
It would be easy to circumvent blocks on individual Facebook pages and groups, so Cambodian authorities would have to cut off the entire service to gain full control, he says.
“Of course this will naturally lead to a major backlash, given the importance of Facebook to the wider Cambodian internet ecosystem,” Griffiths says. “Stop gap measures could include draconian punishments of people who use Facebook to organise or speak against the government.”
Plans for the internet gateway have followed previous attempts at controlling online discourse. In 2018, the government set up a task force to monitor “fake news” online, and announced plans to pass all internet traffic through a data management center run by state-owned Telecom Cambodia.
‘We Should Continue’
In the past month, at least 10 youth activists have been jailed for protests both online and in the streets. This year has seen more than 40 people arrested for spreading alleged “fake news” about Covid-19 online, and in May three people were even briefly detained in relation to posting criticism about new traffic fines.
Former members of the opposition CNRP — dissolved and outlawed in 2017 — have borne the brunt of authorities’ actions against purported threats to social order. Last year, more than 100 former party members were charged for incitement and plotting for allegedly showing support for the promised return of party co-founder Sam Rainsy, who lives in exile in France. In at least one case, the evidence was a private phone call, according to a defense lawyer.
Heng Bunthon, a former CNRP party member in Koh Kong province, says he assumes he is under surveillance online, and carefully watches what he shares on Facebook.
He mostly only posts about Buddhist education. For now, there’s no chance of making any sort of political statement, he says.
“Open up, and you will be beaten up,” he says. “So what can we do?”
“It is like [we’re under] their grip. They can squeeze whenever they want,” Bunthon says.
They committed a crime and made a mistake. …That’s not a form of expression.
Interior Ministry spokesperson Khieu Sopheak says millions of Cambodians enjoy free expression online every day, and people should simply follow the law.
Only criminals have problems with the ministry’s anti-cybercrime efforts, he says.
“Those people are not about expression. They are facing charges from the courts,” Sopheak says. “They committed a crime and made a mistake. … That’s not a form of expression.”
He adds that it is mostly trivial for the government’s technology experts to track down the physical locations of internet users. “Nothing is secret,” the spokesperson says.
Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, says the intensifying crackdown on activists is a way to make people become more fearful and cautious.
“It is a message to other activists, youth or people … to censor themselves,” says Sopheap, who encouraged people to continue to express themselves.
“People should participate more in supporting each other, in showing that what we are doing is within our legal rights,” she says. “We should continue.”