The US State Department has expressed deep concern over Cambodia’s spiralling democratic climate following the government’s diktat to shutter the USAID-funded National Democratic Institute (NDI), ostensibly for violating the highly contentious NGO Law.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Wednesday released a statement asking NDI to close down its office in Cambodia and gave its foreign staff seven days to leave the country for not registering with the ministry and Tax Department – which it said was a violation of the Law on Associations and NGOs (Lango).
In a press briefing, US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert referred to the Kingdom’s smooth conduct of recent commune elections as an “achievement”, but added it had been “eclipsed by troubling government actions curtailing freedom of the press and civil society’s ability to operate”.
Nauert went on to say that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had spoken with his counterparts in Cambodia in the past few weeks and that Ambassador William Heidt had met with Prime Minister Hun Sen, without giving details of the meetings. “We encourage the government to allow NDI, the Cambodia Daily and other independent media and civil society organisations to continue their important activities so that Cambodia’s 2018 national elections can take place in a free and open environment,” she said.
NDI President Kenneth Wollack said he was “surprised and saddened” by the group’s impending expulsion, saying NDI had worked only to strengthen the democratic process, not for a particular political outcome.
“We have been transparent in our work, and have made every attempt to comply with the law. It is our sincere hope the Cambodian government will review its decision,” Wollack said.
He reiterated that NDI had worked with parties across the political spectrum and added that the Foreign Ministry had itself violated Article 14 of the Lango, which gives it 45 days to respond to a request for registration. NDI says its application was accepted last September.
Nauert’s comments followed a strongly worded statement by the US Embassy in Phnom Penh on Wednesday questioning the Cambodian government’s commitment to democracy.
The statement prompted a fringe pro-government group called the League for Peace and Youth Network to threaten a protest at the US Embassy, though it has yet to follow through.
The group is led by Pankhem Bunthan, who in 2015 led a raucous pro-government protest at the National Assembly that ended with Bodyguard Unit members brutally beating two opposition lawmakers.
Bunthan said he still planned to conduct the protest but was currently busy in the provinces.
“We want him to know what democracy is,” referring to Ambassador Heidt. “[The embassy] should not accuse Cambodia through this insulting [language].”
The US Embassy’s statement elicited a response from Ministry of Interior official Huy Vannak and the premier’s son Hun Manith yesterday.
“We wish to send a clear message again to the US Embassy that we defend our national sovereignty,” read an open letter to Heidt from Vannak. “We do not allow the blood of Cambodians to flow and our development [to be] disrupted by incitement of foreigners.”
Manith, meanwhile, took umbrage with the embassy’s assertion that NDI had a memorandum of understanding with the National Election Committee, saying the electoral body was independent from the government and could not be equated with registering with the Foreign Ministry.
The US Embassy declined to comment yesterday.
Lee Morgenbesser, a lecturer at Griffith University in Australia, said in an email Hun Sen would have calculated the risk of a diplomatic row before initiating the recent crackdown, which comes at a time when the US is losing its leverage over the Kingdom.
“The end game – as far as I understand it – is to build a political system devoid of an independent media, activist civil society organisations, and tangible electoral competition.”