Co-opted Social Media and the Practice of Active Silence in Cambodia.

AuthorDoyle, Kevin J.

Cambodia's swing to hegemonic authoritarianism has been accompanied by a related transformation in the field of information and communication: the co-optation of digital platforms to spread a newly crafted hegemonic discourse. This article shows that Prime Minister Hun Sen has co-opted social media to promote a new, more emotive, online persona in tandem with the projection of a discourse that justifies his right to rule unchallenged. Echoes of Hun Sen's social media repertories are also evident in the online activities of his son Hun Manet, which may speak to a transference of symbolic capital prior to a possible succession in the future. At the same time, everyday users of social media in Cambodia engage in counter-hegemonic practices by valuing social media for affording access to sources of news and information not controlled by the ruling Cambodian People's Party. Yet, they also practise an active silence regarding their holding of dissenting political sentiments. This study thus also draws attention to a critical civic awareness growing among the Cambodian public at a time of deepening authoritarianism--a contradiction that may contain the seeds of new political subjectivities and future contestations to Hun Sen's hegemonic rule.

Keywords: Social media, symbolic capital, hegemonic authoritarianism, critical civic awareness, active silence.

Cambodia's transformation from competitive authoritarianism--where a modicum of electoral competition was at least tolerated--to hegemonic authoritarianism under a one-party state, marks a defining moment in the country's contemporary history. In the aftermath of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party's (CNRP) strong local election result in 2017, the competitive pretence in Cambodia's politics was largely abandoned. The CNRP was disqualified from political life, its leaders arrested or forced into exile. Independent media organizations were closed or had restrictions placed on their activities. Across the country political and civic rights were suppressed.

As Neil Loughlin and Astrid Noren-Nilsson note in the introduction to this special issue of Contemporary Southeast Asia, the historical arc of Hun Sen's transition to hegemonic authoritarianism hews to a timeline and political practices that span decades. The flagging popularity of Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) was exposed in the results of the 2013 general elections and the democratic momentum that energized the electorate. To ensure there would be no repeat of his 2013 electoral debacle, Hun Sen engineered the 2018 general elections so that his party faced no real competition.

In tandem with this radical alteration in electoral politics, this study contends that a related transformation has taken place in the field of information and communication. This is defined by Hun Sen's co-opting of digital platforms, turning them into sites of a newly-crafted hegemonic discourse. Through an analysis of Hun Sen's Facebook activities, this article reveals a hegemonic discourse that combines both coercion and consent in the themes of peace and development or, in the implicit threat of a return to war. Hun Sen's peace assumes the quality of a gift to Cambodia, which is also a debt, incurring duties and obligations on the part of Cambodian citizens. (1) Hun Sen's assertion of his ability to meritoriously afford his nation peace--a peace that he can also withdraw--justifies his right to rule unchallenged. There is also evidence of mimesis in the construction of an online persona by Hun Sen's son, Hun Manet, which may indicate a dynastic succession strategy unfolding nascently online in preparation for the transfer of real power offline one day.

However, this article also reveals counter-hegemonic practices that are present in the repertories of everyday social media users in Cambodia. Through them Cambodians are able to express true political sentiments, which obscures simple conclusions regarding depth of their partisan allegiance or loyalty to the CPP. The article also proposes that a growing critical, civic awareness has been afforded through social media and low-cost access to divergent sources of news and information not controlled by the party. Therefore, while increased repression since Hun Sen's swing to hegemonic authoritarianism has largely silenced expression of critical debate and dissent in public, social media users stay critically and civically aware, while maintaining a studied silence about their growing critical awareness.

In order to make this assertion, this article draws on the concept of active silence, which I define as a strategic use of silence as a political act, in terms of a studied withholding of personal views from public scrutiny to avoid official sanctions. Thus, much public activity on social media was for everyday users an empty indicator of their true political sentiments. I propose that people engaged in a practice of active silence on social media as a means to conceal critical social and political opinions, while simultaneously nurturing a critical awareness through accessing independent sources of news media and information that were virtually unavailable to a large audience in Cambodia prior to the popularizing of social media. The practice of active silence embodies the potential for new political subjectivities to emerge, and Hun Sen's prospective efforts to succeed power to his progeny may engender a moment of crisis as questions of succession and political legitimacy will be pushed to the fore and face scrutiny by a younger generation of critically-aware Cambodians.

This article builds on fieldwork conducted in Cambodia in 2017 and 2018. In-depth interviews were held with 32 influential social media users in 2017, including senior officials in the CPP, the opposition CNRP, Grassroots Democracy Party, and civil society workers, including union activists, academics, political analysts, non-governmental organization staff, journalists, and social media commentators. In 2018, I interviewed 28 everyday users of social media including members of the civil service, garment factory workers, students, farmers, people working in small business, private enterprise and members of the Buddhist monkhood. (2) The study incorporates the analysis of posts to Hun Sen's Facebook page (3) between May 2017 and July 2018--a period that encompassed two local and national elections and the country's transition to hegemonic authoritarianism. It also scrutinizes the Facebook activities over the same time-period of Hun Sen's son and heir-apparent, Hun Manet, in consideration of the pivotal role he appears poised to play in Cambodia's political futures."

This article is structured as follows. After introducing various theoretical perspectives regarding social media as a tool of politics and their relevance to Cambodia's transition, it considers the various conceptions of social media, and repertories of usage recounted during research in 2017 and 2018, to show how it is used by various actors in Cambodian politics--focusing on ordinary Cambodians, Hun Sen, and Hun Manet. The article concludes by restating its main findings and contributions in term of the role social media plays in the practice of politics in Cambodia.

Social Media and Democracy: The Cambodian Context

Information and communications technology has long been believed to hold democratic promise. Howard Rheingold, a prophet of the democratizing power of computer-mediated communication, ruminated on the potential of a digital democracy in the early 1990s, proposing that the horizontal nature of the internet's information and communication flows offered an alternative to the vertical, top-down structure of traditional political practices. (5) The networked nature of the internet gave rise to theories of its potential to promote more participatory politics--a digital iteration of the Habermasian public sphere."

Prognostications on the internet's information and communication flows ushering in a new era of democratic participation reached an apogee in narratives of social media spurring protests and social and political transformations in the events known as the Arab Spring. (7) As a consequence of the uneven and often disappointing outcomes of the Arab Spring, earlier, optimistic forecasts regarding the socially-transformative nature of social media technology have in recent times shifted from a reversal to a full-blown retreat. (8)

An early critic of cyber Utopian discourse, Evgeny Morozov, notes that those promoting the promise of networked platforms and digitally-mediated democracy had failed to understand that authoritarian governments feared digital cameras far less than they feared losing their grip on power. (9) At the time of Morozov publishing his then-contrarian views, the Arab Spring uprisings were rumbling to a close across the Middle East and North Africa, largely without the liberation technology Zeitgeist having delivered on the anticipated triumph of democracy. Rather than withdraw, narratives of technology-afforded liberation relocated to other countries and peoples, including Cambodia. Opposition political figures and civil society groups were among the early adopters and, initially, social media was associated in Cambodia with progressive forces and the highlighting of social injustice and demands for more democratic governance. (10)

Social media allowed for the airing of public concerns that were, prior to the availability of such platforms, largely absent from Cambodia's domestic media, particularly broadcast, where self-censorship and partisan coverage ensured that pro-government perspectives dominated." With the popularizing of social media, state-owned broadcast media and privately-owned stations aligned with the ruling party lost considerable relevance in terms of news and information delivery. A watershed moment for public perception of traditional media occurred during the return...

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