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Hun Sen’s Facebook Page Goes Dark After Spat with Meta

The usually very active Facebook account for Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia appeared to have been deleted on Friday, a day after the oversight board for 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-ruling autocrats.

Mr. Hun Sen, 70, has ruled Cambodia since 1985 and maintained power partly by silencing his critics. He is a staunch ally of China, a country whose support comes free of American-style admonishments on the value of human rights and democratic institutions.

A note Friday on Mr. Hun Sen’s account, which had about 14 million followers, said that its content “isn’t available right now.” It was not immediately clear whether Meta had suspended the account or if Mr. Hun Sen had preemptively deleted it, as he had vowed to do in a post late Thursday on Telegram, a social media platform where he has a much smaller following.

“That he stopped using Facebook is his private right,” 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 had on Thursday recommended a minimum six-month suspension of Mr. Hun Sen’s accounts on Facebook and Instagram, which Meta also owns. The board also said that one of Mr. Hun Sen’s Facebook videos had violated Meta’s rules on “violence and incitement” and should be taken down.

In the video, Mr. Hun Sen delivered a speech in which he responded to allegations of vote-stealing by calling on his political opponents to choose between the legal system and “a bat.”

“If you say that’s freedom of expression, I will also express my freedom by sending people to your place and home,” Mr. Hun Sen said 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 on the grounds that it is newsworthy and in the public interest. But the oversight board said on Thursday that it was overturning the decision, calling it “incorrect.”

The board added that its recommendation to suspend Mr. Hun Sen’s accounts for at least six months was justified given the severity 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 threats.”

Meta later said in a statement that it would remove the offending video to comply with the board’s decision. The company also said that it would respond to the suspension recommendation after analyzing it.

Critics of Facebook have long said that the platform can undermine democracy, promote violence and help politicians unfairly target their critics, particularly in countries with weak institutions.

Mr. Hun Sen has spent years cracking down on the news media and political opposition in an effort to consolidate his grip on power. In February, he ordered the shutdown of one of the country’s last independent news outlets, saying he did not like its coverage of his son and presumed successor, Lt. Gen. Hun Manet.

Under Mr. Hun Sen, the government has also pushed for more government surveillance of the internet, a move that rights groups say makes it even easier for the authorities to monitor and punish online content.

Mr. Hun Sen’s large Facebook following may overstate 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 accumulate millions of counterfeit followers.

Mr. Sam Rainsy, who lives in exile, also argued that Mr. Hun Sen had used Facebook to spread false news stories and death threats directed at political opponents. The court later denied his request that Facebook be compelled to release records of advertising 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, the Cambodian authorities have disqualified other opposition parties from running in a general election next month.

At a public event in Cambodia on Friday, Mr. Hun Sen said that his political opponents outside the country were surely happy with his decision to quit Facebook.

“You have to be aware that if I order Facebook to be shut down in Cambodia, it will strongly affect you,” he added, speaking at an event for garment workers ahead of the general election. “But this is not the path that I choose.”

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Mohammad SHiblu

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