The Cambodian Foreign Ministry yesterday announced that it was halting the operations of the US State Department-funded National Democratic Institute (NDI) and expelling all its foreign staff from the Kingdom in the next week – a move that prompted the US Embassy to fire back at the ministry for itself violating the NGO Law.
The order comes after the NGO was accused of providing the Cambodia National Rescue Party with an “ill-intended” plan to overthrow the government after materials from a training seminar – and unverified correspondence with a senior CNRP official – were leaked on government-aligned Fresh News.
The Foreign Ministry’s statement cites Article 34 of the controversial Law on Associations and NGOs (Lango), which allows the ministry to halt the activities of any international group that fails to register or establish a memorandum of understanding. It also cites the tax code, which requires registration within 15 days of beginning operations in the country, failing which, legal action can be taken.
“Since this law came into effect in August 2015, NDI has operated in Cambodia without being registered with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation until the organisation filed a request for registration on June 21 2016,” the statement reads. “Pending the Ministry’s decision on its application, NDI has continued carrying out its activities with total contempt.”
Chum Sounry, spokesman for the ministry, refused to answer questions on the status of NDI’s application from last year, and said the situation had been adequately addressed in the statement.
John Cavanaugh, NDI’s resident programme director, could not be reached for comment, and NDI’s president, Ken Wollack, and the group’s Washington, DC, office did not respond to requests for comment.
In recent weeks, the government has ramped up pressure on local and international NGOs it deems critical – especially those funded by USAID. The English-language paper the Cambodia Daily, which is owned by an American citizen, is also facing imminent closure for failing to pay a purported $6.3 million tax bill – an amount contested by the media organisation.
The ministry’s statement concludes with a warning that the “competent authorities are geared up” to take similar measures against other foreign NGOs that fail to abide by the Kingdom’s laws.
Over the weekend, pro-government outlet Fresh News published anonymous articles criticising USAID-funded NGOs, such as NDI, the National Endowment for Democracy and the International Republican Institute, for pushing American foreign policy and initiating revolutions and regime changes in countries viewed unfavourably by the US.
Following the Foreign Ministry announcement, the US Embassy in Phnom Penh released a strongly worded statement on its Facebook page. Titled “Is #Cambodia Committed to Democracy? You Decide!”, it was accompanied by pictures of ruling Cambodian People’s Party officials receiving training from NDI earlier this year.
“Coming just two months after Cambodia’s very successful commune council elections, the decision to shut down the NDI raises a fundamental question: Is the Cambodian government committed to democracy?” the statement said.
The embassy added that NDI had a valid MoU with the National Election Committee and worked closely with them and the Interior Ministry for a more open and inclusive electoral process. The post also criticised the Foreign Ministry’s tardiness in responding to NDI’s application for registration.
“The MFAIC took no action on NDI’s application for 335 days, in violation of Article 14 of the Law on Non-Governmental Organizations (LANGO),” the post read. The law requires the ministry to respond within 45 days to an application.
Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, viewed the current aggressive push as Hun Sen’s final reckoning with the civil society set up following the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) mission in the early 1990s, which his government sees as impinging on its sovereignty, and as a channel for foreign meddling in domestic affairs.
“The ‘UNTAC era’, in which Cambodia became an international nation-building ‘project’ and was opened up to myriad foreign interactions, is quickly coming to an end. Put differently, the country seems to be reverting to its authoritarian historical mean,” he said.
Additionally, he said Cambodia was freed of the need to “play the game” with donors like the US, given China’s support, and could target groups with which it has an axe to grind, such as NDI.
Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson said recent developments were indicative of new levels of political paranoia and the concocting of US-led conspiracies. “These actions show the true face of PM Hun Sen as a ‘my way or the highway’ leader prepared to run roughshod over human rights to hold on to power, like a sort of Asian Robert Mugabe who confuses his welfare with the well-being of the country,” he said, referring to Zimbabwe’s long-standing president.