Authoritarian Tech

A digital echo of the Khmer Rouge haunts phones in Cambodia

A pattern of phone taps, leaks and arrests is reminding some Cambodians of Pol Pot’s tactics

Last month, two members of Cambodia’s forcibly dissolved opposition party — the Cambodia National Rescue Party — were arrested and charged with incitement, defamation, and violating a Supreme Court order. 

When Sun Bunthon and Nou Phoeun were brought in by the police, they were surprised to hear them read out a transcript of a private phone call. 

The men had spoken about the political situation, encouraging the return of the party’s exiled co-founder Sam Rainsy, who has been charged with treason and a host of other politically motivated crimes.

The pair’s lawyer, Sam Sokong, declined to speak about the case over the phone, preferring to meet in person. 

“The CNRP activists feel afraid to converse on their phones,” said Sokong. “I cannot talk about any serious thing on the phone.”

Sokong said he was in the room with his clients when the police read the transcript. He said the police had no warrant giving them permission to record, but did so anyway because it was a matter of “national security”.

While these were the first arrests definitively linked to phone tapping in over a year, Cambodia has a long history of pressing criminal charges over private phone conversations. 

Even before technological advancements allowed the Cambodian government to access its citizens’ phones, surveillance was a part of life.

Coffee vendor Samnang* was a young boy when the totalitarian Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia in the 1970s, but he still remembers the sinister slogans about Angkar and its all-seeing eyes. “Angkar has the many eyes of a pineapple.”

The communist regime used manipulative rhetoric along with brute force to intimidate and control ordinary Cambodians. In less than four years, an estimated two million people died. The families of those accused of being traitors were often killed along with the offender, including infants. (“When pulling out the weeds, remove the roots and all.”)

At the center of it all was Angkar, an omniscient entity that embodied the ruling party. 

The Khmer Rouge convinced ordinary Cambodians that any transgression, even stealing a grain of rice, would be discovered and punished. “Everyone would report another’s mistakes and Angkar knew everything,” Samnang said.

While primarily Buddhist, Cambodian animist beliefs are teeming with spirits and ghosts, and many survivors describe Angkar as a supernatural entity. 

Academic researcher Peg LeVine, who testified as an expert witness at the trial of the Khmer Rouge leaders, said “many victims perceive Angkar as an ‘it’ with timeless omnipresence.”

A trauma psychologist and anthropologist, LeVine conducted a decade of filmed research into the effects of the Khmer Rouge and what she coined as “ritualcide”.  

LeVine concluded that the Khmer Rouge did not purposefully create Angkar, but rather the belief that there was “an invisible possessing force that can read and infiltrate people’s minds” arose organically through ritualistic and ancestral influences.

In a nation that is still collectively suffering from the trauma experienced under the Khmer Rouge, it is easy to take advantage of these latent fears to achieve new goals.

Enter Seiha, a modern upgrade to Angkar that listens to phone conversations, intercepts text messages, which it feeds back to Hun Sen. Originally a little-known Facebook page, Seiha rose to notoriety in 2016 when the page began hosting recordings of secretly leaked phone calls. Seiha played a crucial role in attacks on the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the country’s main opposition party, exposing internal conflicts, sex scandals, and allegedly “defamatory” criticisms of the government. Seiha’s message reached even wider audiences when it became a mainstay of government propaganda machine, Fresh News, a highly-ranked news site. Videos posted on Seiha’s page were immediately redistributed by Fresh News, reaching an audience of millions.

Together, Fresh News and Seiha created a climate of paranoia, where some fear even ordinary people could find their phones tapped.

“To the extremist group, please be careful. Seiha listens every day,” Hun Sen once warned the CNRP.

LeVine said it would be “creepy” and “cruel” if the Cambodian government is purposefully invoking memories of Angkar through surveillance.

“As survivors have told me how Angkar enters their night terrors, today — one can only imagine the shadow of Seiha,” she said. 

Before CNRP leader Kem Sokha was charged with treason, Seiha circulated conversations between Sokha and an alleged mistress, culminating in a prostitution charge. (Sokha evaded arrest by holing up in CNRP headquarters for months until a royal pardon deescalated political tensions.)

At the time, Anti-Corruption Unit director Om Yentieng admitted, “we can tap whatever we want”. 

Another politician, Lu Lay Sreng, fled the country after Seiha leaked a recorded phone call of him insulting the king and accusing the ruling party of corruption.

While only the government has the authority to monitor phone conversations, no investigation has ever been conducted into Seiha’s identity, suggesting official affiliation. Hun Sen’s own son serves as the head of the military’s intelligence department, while his son-in-law holds a similar position in the national police.

Since 2018, Seiha has been relatively quiet and may even be dormant. That makes sense: the CNRP, the biggest opposition party, is banned, most of its leaders have fled, and party president Kem Sokha is under house arrest. But the long shadow cast by Seiha continues to be felt. Activists in civil society, labor unions, politicians, and even regular Cambodians continue to report that they are being monitored — with many making direct reference to Seiha. 

Climate of fear 

“Seiha is Hun Sen,” Kosal* said confidently, echoing the general public opinion that Seiha is part of the government’s security apparatus. As a CNRP supporter, Kosal asked not to be identified due to an ongoing crackdown that has seen opposition activists arrested and beaten.

Kosal arrived at the café where we met wearing a tan button-down shirt with matching slacks. His glasses were perched delicately on his nose. Born to a rural farming family, Kosal, came to Phnom Penh to study Khmer literature, abandoning his agrarian roots for academia.

An open supporter of the opposition party, Kosal said he used to make Facebook posts critical of the government. In 2017, his account was hacked and he couldn’t recover it. Kosal signed up for Facebook through his phone number, and believes the government used that to take over his account. 

“I very rarely use the normal call function because they listen to everything,” he said, explaining that he uses Signal messaging app to discuss politics.

He said other CNRP supporters he knows are also fearful.

“We are afraid they would arrest us, they would harass us, they would capture us like Kem Sokha. When we talk about politics we have to be very careful,” he explained. 

Ever since the CNRP’s dissolution, a pall of fear has gripped the country. Members of the party continue to be arrested at a regular pace, and ordinary Cambodians are afraid to talk about anything even tangentially related to politics. 

At the same time, Cambodian access to social media continues to skyrocket, with Facebook users rising from 6.8 million to 8.8 million in the last year. But the platform remains fraught with danger, as users are regularly arrested for social media posts that criticize the government. Speaking to the press is also risky — a tuktuk driver was summoned for questioning in August after speaking to the South China Morning Post.

Human rights organizations routinely criticize the government for widespread abuses and Cambodia consistently ranks among the worst countries for corruption and judicial independence. Despite this, Hun Sen’s grip on the country remains iron-clad with financial and economic support from his closest ally, China.

To maintain power, Hun Sen banks on the country’s steady economic growth and its history of horrific violence, often invoking the memory of the Khmer Rouge as a warning against any attempt at a revolution.

CNRP supporter Tum Bunthorn was more defiant, even mockingly suggesting that he’d like Hun Sen to listen to everything he says.

“Technically the CNRP is dissolved, but in our heart it is still there,” he said in reference to the now-banned opposition party. “I’m not scared that they would listen to me. I even want them to know what I say so that the people will also know,” he added.

Fresh-faced and animated, everything Bunthorn said sounded light-hearted, but when he spoke of his wife and 8-month-old child, his mood changed. Since our interview, he has been arrested and charged with plotting a coup. 

“My wife keeps telling me not to involve in politics. She’s worried I could be arrested or killed. It’s hard for her and hard for me too,” he said, during our interview. “But I need to think about the country.”

With 65 percent of the population under 30, most Cambodians did not live through the Khmer Rouge, but the communist regime remains ever present in daily life. Hun Sen props up his political legitimacy by describing himself as the savior of Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge while warning that chaos will return if he ever leaves office. 

Academic researcher Peg LeVine said despite Cambodia’s modernization, the younger generation also “intuits” the fears and anxieties of their elders. 

“All in all, a creepy kind of fear would immobilize receivers of Seiha’s surveillance — particularly when memories of Angkar are being stirred. Such ‘omnipresent’ messages would affect all ages,” she said.

Still, it’s not just the politically active that Seiha seemed to target.

When an unnamed brain surgeon allegedly badmouthed the Prime Minister’s eldest daughter, Hun Sen warned: “I know your face, name, residence and that you are a brain surgeon; you should not be a fool like this.” He later added, “Seiha heard that and shared to me.”

A digital Angkar

Bunthorn was a young child during the years when the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia. 

He said Angkar served the same purpose that Seiha does today. “For example, during the Khmer Rouge, if you talked upstairs, the Angkar will stay under your house so it’s the same as Seiha is doing now,” he said.

But Seiha is not the same as Angkar. It’s not as total, nor as mystical. As Alexander Laban Hinton, professor of anthropology at Rutgers University, Newark, wrote in “Why Did They Kill? Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide”, “Angkar supplanted Buddhism as the new ‘religion’.” Hinton called Angkar “totalistic, pervasive, and all-knowing”.

Seiha, in some ways, is more mundane, an Angkar for the post-Snowden era when surveillance reminds us less of all-seeing spirits and has more in common with powerful intelligence agencies like the National Security Agency. In 2017, when a conversation between Hun Sen and Sokha was leaked, the prime minister even jokingly compared Seiha to Western technology.

“I am surprised that the Facebook page, known as Seiha, is able to hack my conversation with Kem Sokha. Such equipment can only be used by the U.S., Israel or Germany,” he said sarcastically.

Paul Craig, head of offensive security for Singaporean cybersecurity firm Vantage Point, said it’s likely the government is getting direct access from the telecommunications companies. 

“I have worked with many telcos over SE Asia and all of them have [lawful intercept] capabilities. It’s usually a legal requirement for a telco/ISP [internet service provider] to provide LI to law enforcement in most countries,” he told Coda via email. 

“Typically LI access is governed by a legal framework and requires a warrant and strict legal protocols about what and who can be monitored,” Craig said. “However, without a clear and strong legal framework protecting the access this could be very easily abused.”

Cambodia has notoriously weak rule of law and its Law on Telecommunications has been criticized for being overly vague. The law allows phone tapping if approved by an undefined “legitimate authority” and requires that all telco companies provide information and data to the government if requested. 

Craig added that Cambodia’s deepening relationship with China should be a cause for concern. 

“China are becoming the surveillance masters of the world, and if Cambodia were setting up a China-esque surveillance program you may have reason to be worried,” he said. 

Coffee vendor Samnang has a harder time talking about the current political situation than the Cambodia’s brutal past.

“I know the government can do whatever they want, like listening to our conversation,” he said. “For the ordinary person like us we just try not to stand out”.

Kosal believes Seiha has disappeared because “everyone knows” Hun Sen is behind it in some way. Part of what made Seiha terrifying was its anonymity. Kosal thinks it could return in a different form. “They could choose different names or accounts, or use other means. For example, using fake news to attack people,” he said. 

* the names of individuals have been changed at their request.

Andrew Nachemson

Andrew Nachemson is a freelance journalist covering politics, human rights and Chinese development. He is based in Myanmar.

Kong Meta

Kong Meta is an award-winning Cambodian journalist based in Phnom Penh.

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