US and Cambodia fire diplomatic shots after closure of NGO

By: Nathan Paul Southern - Posted on: August 24, 2017 | Cambodia

Exchanges between the countries have grown increasingly heated after a US-funded democracy NGO was shut down and independent media outlets put on alert

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen arrives at the Manila International Airport in Manila, Philippines, 28 April 2017. Photo: EPA/Rolex Dela Pena

After the U.S. State Department expressed its “deep concern” on Wednesday over the closure of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) office in Cambodia amid a deteriorating political situation in the country, Phnom Penh shot back in an open letter issued Thursday morning.

“Cambodians are well aware of what a democratic process means. You do not need to tell us what it is,” it said in an open letter, accusing the US of being “bloody and brutal” and helping Pol Pot’s murderous Khmer Rouge come to power in the 1970s.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, facing an uncertain election set for July 2018 and broad criticism of his campaign to suppress political opponents, has repeatedly gone after the US in the past year for its hypocritical human rights rhetoric and a bombing campaign that rocked Cambodia in the 1970s. (Rather than apologizing, the US insists on having Cambodia repay a war-era debt.)

Relations reached a new low this week when the government issued a letter announcing the closure of the local NDI office, which it has accused of conspiring with the political opposition, violating a controversial and vaguely worded law regulating NGOs in the country, and not paying proper taxes.

The Cambodian government “have reached the decision to stop the operation of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in Cambodia and to expel its foreign staff from the Kingdom within seven days after the official notification of this decision,” the Foreign Affairs Ministry said in a statement dated Wednesday.

The ministry promised that foreign staff at the US-funded institute will be removed by force if they did not comply with the order and leave the country within a week.

NDI is a non-profit that claims to be nonpartisan in its work helping to promote democracy and strengthen democratic institutions around the world. It is funded by the National Endowment for Democracy, USAid and the US State Department.

Following the disputed election in 2013, the government accused NDI of being among the foreign NGOs who attempted to foment a ‘color revolution’ against the government. It drew particularly strong rebuke for a comprehensive report showing that irregularities in that election likely benefited the ruling CPP.

The last time the government kicked an NGO and its foreign staff out of the country was in 2001, when UK-based Global Witness was banished for its highly critical reporting accusing senior officials of being complicit in the illegal logging trade.

There is now significant concern that NDI could be just the first casualty as the ruling CPP, which has been in power for more than 30 years, goes on the offensive against independent NGOs and media outlets in the months ahead of next year’s election.

The Cambodia Daily has been given until 4 September to either pay $6.3 million in back taxes or be shut down. Efforts by the American publishers to dispute the bill and negotiate a settlement with the government have so far been rejected.

Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, which are both funded by the US government and have popular Khmer-language broadcasts in Cambodia every day, have also been targeted in the recent onslaught.

In its comments on the situation, the US State Department urged the Cambodian 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.”

However, Washington’s demands may do little to change the situation on the ground, especially with Cambodia shifting away from the US. Phnom Penh cancelled routine military drills with the US this year and even kicked out a US Navy humanitarian unit called the Seabees.

“The US’s diminishing voice on human rights and democratic freedoms combined with China’s largesse and influence in Cambodia had emboldened the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to take action,” political analyst Ou Virak told the BBC. “Basically what you are now seeing is the end of a western-dominated era in Cambodian nation building and politics.”