By Marta Kasztelan

When the National Election Committee (NEC) released its updated preliminary election results this Monday, confirming a narrow win by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), opposition leader Sam Rainsy posted his reaction to the announcement on his Facebook page.  Rainsy questioned the release of the results by the body in spite of a pending independent investigation into alleged irregularities.

“This quick announcement of the temporary election results by the NEC shows it seems to be under pressure by a powerful person, ” he wrote.

Cambodia opposition leader Sam Rainsy. Pic: AP.

And his supporters agreed. Facebook saw many reactions to the election results from young Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) sympathisers, who have been rallying for change online throughout the election period.

Not only was this one of the most heated elections in a decade, with opposition scoring significant gains, it was also unprecedented in terms of participation by tech-savvy youth. According to the Phnom Penh Post, out of the 9.6 million voters registered to cast their ballot in the 28 July election, 3.5 million were between 18 to 30 years old. Armed with their smart phones and laptops, the new generation of Cambodian voters used social media to share information and on the polling day to report irregularities.

Although Cambodia is still very much a rural country, Internet use, especially by young Cambodians, is steadily increasing. According to social media agency We Are Social, one new user joins Facebook every two minutes in Cambodia. This translates to almost 1,000 new members on a daily basis.

The role played by the social networking site during the election has not gone unnoticed by civil society organizations. Human rights watchdog Amnesty International recognised that while media freedom remained a concern in the Southeast Asian country, social media “offered a new information outlet for some“.

Un Samnang, a report writer at election watchdog Comfrel, said that Facebook was one of the very few platforms where voters were able raise their concerns about the election and share independent information with each other.

“Most media are controlled by the CPP and are peddling pro-government information. Additionally, local radio stations chose self-censorship in the period leading up to the polls and on the election day itself, because they were afraid to lose their operating licences. Social media filled in that information gap,“ he said.

Both CPP and CNRP used the Internet to galvanise voter support, with the opposition relying more heavily on Facebook due to its limited access to mainstream Khmer media. In his interview with HuffPost Live, Sam Rainsy praised Cambodia’s youth for taking to social media to make their voices heard and to organize.

“The youth in Cambodia is very active and is getting involved in politics… In many ways, they are like the youth in the Arab states, dissatisfied with the ruling regime… Now they have Facebook, which is very powerful and effective for youth to come together en masse in a very short time,“ he said

The thousands of CNRP supporters that greeted Rainsy on 19 July, when he came back to Cambodia from self-imposed exile, are certainly a testament to the power of social media to get people together. The information about Rainsy‘s return first appeared on his Facebook page and there was no mention of his arrival in local papers.

26-year-old political sciences graduate, OU Ritthy, believes that the trend to use social media to share news and discuss current affairs is here to stay in Cambodia and will eventually lead to a change in political culture.

Ritthy, who organizes informal discussion groups about politics in Phnom Penh, is however eary about the comparison of Cambodia’s youth movement to the so-called “Arab Spring“.

“I know that many people compare the situation in Cambodia and the use of social media to the ‘Arab Spring‘ but we need an evolution not a revolution. Revolution is too bloody,“ he said.

Marta Kasztelan is a human rights lawyer and freelance writer based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.