Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen’s usually very active Facebook account was found to have been deleted Friday, a day after the board of trustees of Meta, Facebook’s parent company, recommended that he be suspended from the platform for threatening political opponents with violence .
The showdown pits the social media behemoth against one of Asia’s longest-reigning autocrats.
Mr Hun Sen, 70, has ruled Cambodia since 1985 and maintained power in part by silencing his critics. He is a staunch ally of China, a country whose support is free of US admonitions about the value of human rights and democratic institutions.
A note on Friday on Mr Hun Sen’s account, which had about 14 million followers, said the content was “currently unavailable”. It was not immediately clear whether Meta had suspended the account or whether Mr Hun Sen had pre-emptively removed it, as he had promised to do in a Thursday night post on Telegram, a social media platform where he has a much smaller following.
“It is his private right that he stopped using Facebook,” Phay Siphan, a spokesman for the Cambodian government, told The New York Times on Friday. “Other Cambodians use it, and that’s their right.”
The company-appointed oversight board for Meta on Thursday recommended a minimum six-month suspension for Mr Hun Sen’s accounts on Facebook and Instagram, which Meta also owns. The board also said one of Mr Hun Sen’s Facebook videos violated Meta’s rules on “violence and incitement” and should be removed.
In the video, Mr Hun Sen delivered a speech responding to vote-stealing allegations by calling on his political opponents to choose between the justice system and “a bat”.
“If you say that is freedom of speech, I will also express my freedom by sending people to your house and home,” said Mr. Hun Sen in the speech, according to Meta.
Meta had previously decided to keep the video online under a policy that allows the platform to allow content that violates Facebook’s community standards because it is newsworthy and in the public interest. But the oversight board said on Thursday it reversed the decision, calling it “wrong.”
The board added that its recommendation to suspend Mr Hun Sen’s accounts for at least six months was justified given the seriousness of the violation and his “history of committing human rights violations and intimidating political opponents, and his strategic use of social media to amplify such violations.” hazards.”
Meta later said in a statement that it would remove the offending video to comply with the board’s decision. The company also said it would respond to the suspension recommendation after analyzing it.
Critics of Facebook have long said the platform can undermine democracy, promote violence and help politicians unfairly target their critics, especially in countries with weak institutions.
Mr Hun Sen has for years cracked down on the news media and political opposition in an attempt to consolidate his grip on power. In February, he ordered the closure of one of the country’s last independent news outlets, saying he did not appreciate the coverage of his son and heir presumptive, Lieutenant General Hun Manet.
Under Mr Hun Sen, the government has also pushed for more government surveillance of the internet, a move rights groups say will make it even easier for authorities to monitor and punish online content.
The large following of Mr. Hun Sen on Facebook may exaggerate his actual support. In 2018, one of his most prominent political opponents, Sam Rainsy, argued in a California court that the prime minister used so-called click farms to collect millions of counterfeit followers.
Mr. Sam Rainsy, who lives in exile, also argued that Mr. Hun Sen had used Facebook to spread fake news stories and death threats against political opponents. The court later rejected his request to force Facebook to release data on ad purchases by Mr Hun Sen and his allies.
In 2017, an opposition political party that Mr. Sam Rainsy had led, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, was dissolved by the country’s highest court. More recently, Cambodian authorities have disqualified other opposition parties from participating in general elections next month.
Speaking at a public event in Cambodia on Friday, Mr Hun Sen said his political opponents abroad were certainly happy with his decision to quit Facebook.
“You should be aware that if I order Facebook to be shut down in Cambodia, it will have a big impact on you,” he added, speaking at an event for garment workers ahead of the general election. “But this is not the path I choose.”