Hun Sen, Cambodia's prime minister, at a news conference following the EU-ASEAN Commemorative summit in Brussels, Belgium, on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022.
CNN  — 

Cambodian strongman leader Hun Sen has thrown his weight behind a new homegrown messaging app, which critics say is a way for the government to monitor and undermine political discussion in the country.

CoolApp, launched this month to rival WhatsApp and Telegram, will make it “difficult for foreigners to interfere with our information,” the former prime minister wrote in a post on his official Facebook page this week, adding that he was mindful of “national security.”

“It is the first-ever Cambodian program and used within the Cambodian security domain,” he wrote. “Other countries have their own social media means of communication like China’s WeChat, Vietnam’s Zalo, South Korea’s Kakao Talk and Russia’s Telegram, so in Cambodia, we have … our own product,” he added.

One of the world’s longest-serving leaders, Hun Sen has ruled Cambodia with an iron fist for more than three decades. Though his eldest son, Hun Manet, succeeded him as prime minister last year, Hun Sen remains the ruling party’s center of power.

The country has been at the center of a multi-billion dollar online scam epidemic in Southeast Asia, run predominantly by Chinese gangs, which has raised global security concerns from bodies like the US State Department and the United Nations.

CoolApp founder and CEO Lim Cheavutha told CNN the app has been downloaded 150,000 times and does not monitor, collect or store user data. It uses end-to-end encryption to ensure data and calls remain secure, he said.

“Only you and the person you are communicating with can read or listen (to messages and calls) — nobody in between,” he said.

He predicted the app will eventually reach 500,000 or 1 million downloads, though he did not provide a timeframe. Meta’s WhatsApp, the world’s most popular messaging app, is estimated to have millions of users in Cambodia.

Greater online surveillance

Internet freedom in Cambodia has experienced a drastic regression under Hun Sen’s rule, rights groups say. Censorship, media blackouts and online harassment are rampant.

Activists have noted increased state surveillance, which has led to the arrest and persecution of government critics over the years as well as the shutdown of independent media outlets and websites.

CNN has reached out to Hun Sen’s office for comment.

A prolific social media user who once famously denied buying likes for his Facebook page, Hun Sen has considered banning the site, the most popular social media platform in the country, saying he was fed up about online abuse from political opponents abroad.

In 2023, a quasi-independent oversight board for Facebook’s parent company Meta (META) recommended that Hun Sen’s Facebook and Instagram accounts be suspended for six months for using language that could incite violence, according to Reuters.

Mu Sochua, an opposition leader living in exile overseas, told CNN that Cambodians “should not be fooled by the strongman leader’s promotion of CoolApp.”

“I see it as nothing but another violent assault on civil liberties in Cambodia,” she said, calling the app a “Chinese-style mechanism for the control of public discourse and mass surveillance.”

Hun Sen and the Cambodian government have close ties with China’s ruling Communist Party, which oversees a massive surveillance network. “Already civil servants are ordered to download CoolApp,” Mu Sochua said. “Who dares to oppose the order?”

Another exiled Cambodian opposition leader, Sam Rainsy, echoed calls to boycott CoolApp, saying the app would “strengthen repressive tools at the disposal of the regime.”

“This is ironic coming from a leader who has a long history and track record of secretly listening in to private opposition discussions,” Sam Rainsy said, noting previous instances of Hun Sen controlling social media discourse.