Leaked materials from the United States-funded NGO National Democratic Institute (NDI) have been portrayed on Facebook and in local media as being part of an “ill intended” strategy to help the opposition party win next year’s national election, with government officials yesterday publicly questioning the NGO’s registration and neutrality.
The NDI leak follows a recent trend of NGOs and media outlets, mostly critical of the government, being pulled up by the authorities over alleged back taxes and questions over their legally mandated registration with authorities.
A Facebook account under the name “Kon Khmer”, which means Khmer child, on Wednesday posted images of a slideshow, photos and an agenda from a training session conducted by NDI for the Cambodia National Rescue Party in mid-March, suggesting that the group provided the latter with a plan to defeat the ruling Cambodian People’s Party at the national ballot.
“Through the training documents of NDI for the CNRP in March 2017, it shows clearly the ill-intended plan where the NGO had prepared a strategy and tricks to help the CNRP win against the CPP led by Hun Sen,” the text of the post reads.
A screenshot of one of the slides shows a fake July 2018 headline in local newspaper Koh Santepheap that reads “Cambodia National Rescue Party Wins Election!” Another slide, which reads “I think you can win the next election,” lists two conditions that could lead the CNRP to lose next year: if the “CPP cheats”, or if the opposition lacks an electoral strategy.
The Facebook post also alleges that NDI suggested that the CNRP push its “slogans and propaganda” through media outlets that regularly attack the government, naming The Phnom Penh Post, the Cambodia Daily and radio stations.
The post was quickly picked up by government-aligned news website Fresh News and shared on social media by government officials, who questioned NDI’s neutrality.
Responding to the development, John Cavanaugh, NDI’s resident programme director, said the NGO had worked with five parties – including the CPP – this year on a wide variety of topics, and maintained the NGO was neutral in its activities.
“NDI is strictly non-partisan and partners with all major political parties. NDI’s work is focused on strengthening democratic processes, benefiting candidates and voters alike,” he said, in an email.
He did not detail the training given to each individual party, adding that they were tailored to the parties’ specific requirements.
Following release of the Fresh News article, Ministry of Interior official Huy Vannak told the same publication that NDI had not registered with his ministry, to which Cavanaugh responded that the NGO had submitted a registration application last September to the Foreign Ministry.
Under the Law on Associations and NGOs, international NGOs have to sign a memorandum of understanding with the Foreign Ministry.
Vannak and Foreign Ministry officials Chum Sounry and Ouch Borith could not be reached yesterday.
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said the leak clearly showed that NDI was not “neutral and independent”, and questioned their compliance with the NGO Law, which contains controversial and vaguely defined stipulations of impartiality.
“Why haven’t they submitted the documents properly? They have already operated in Cambodia from long ago,” he said.
Asked if the CPP had received training from the NDI, Eysan acknowledged that the two sides had had some “communication”, and that the ruling party had attended NDI public forums, but maintained he did not know what, if any, training the party received.
CNRP Deputy President Eng Chhay Eang, meanwhile, was quick to dismiss any bias on the part of NDI, adding that the March training was about effective communication and not electoral strategies.
Kem Monovithya, the party’s deputy director for public affairs, called the efforts to delegitimise NDI yet another attempt by the government to concoct a “revolution to justify crackdowns before 2018 elections”.
“Part of this is smearing NGOs and foreign governments deemed pro-democracy in Cambodia who would speak up on election issues,” she added.
Referring to the recent government scrutiny of NGOs and media outlets, Ou Virak, founder of the think tank Future Forum, said pulling up organisations for noncompliance was only acceptable as long as it was fair across the board.
“It is bound to create suspicion that it is targeted – and it is. They should not do it by political means.”