NDI Accused of Assisting Opposition to Undermine Cambodia’s Ruling Party

The US-based NGO says it is non-partisan and partners with ‘all major political parties.’

Commune candidates respond to voters at a forum organized by NDI in Battambang province's Sangke district, May 22, 2017.

A U.S. NGO promoting political participation has come under fire in Cambodia following allegations that it advised the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) on how to beat the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) ahead of recent commune elections and a general ballot set for next year.

On Wednesday, government-aligned media group Fresh News reported that Washington-based National Democratic Institute (NDI) held a training course from March 14-15 for the CNRP at the Sunway Hotel in the capital Phnom Penh on “unseating the ruling party in the 2017-2018 elections.”

Fresh News published a program agenda and a presentation slide allegedly used at the session, entitled “Communications Consultations,” that said the opposition would only lose commune elections held on June 4 and the 2018 general election if the “CPP cheats” or the CNRP “lacks the strategy, discipline, [and] creativity to win.”

The two documents, and training materials that included the names of CNRP President Kem Sokha and other senior opposition officials, were leaked in a post on the Facebook page of an anonymous user, the report said.

Fresh News said the training was a “deliberately evil plan” by the NDI to “commission a strategy and tactics to help the CNRP defeat the CPP in the next elections.”

The CPP won June’s commune elections, but the CNRP received nearly 44 percent of all votes to the ruling party’s 51 percent, in an outcome that many see as a bellwether for next year’s ballot.

On Thursday, Fresh News cited Huy Vannak, an Interior Ministry undersecretary of state and the president of the Union of Journalist Federations of Cambodia, as saying that “after a careful review of the NDI we have found that this organization has not registered with the Ministry of Interior since the outset.”

Cambodia’s Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations (LANGO) was passed in 2015 with unanimous approval by CPP lawmakers, amid a boycott of parliament by the CNRP. The law requires the 5,000 domestic and international NGOs that work in the country to register with the government and report their activities and finances or risk fines, criminal prosecution and shut downs.

NDI responds

Following the reports by Fresh News, John Cavanaugh, NDI’s resident program director in Cambodia, issued a statement saying that his organization is non-partisan and committed to helping improve democracy in the country.

“For more than 25 years, NDI has partnered with Cambodian political parties, candidates, civil society, and ordinary citizens to promote transparent governance and inclusive political participation that serves the best interests of the Cambodian people,” Cavanaugh said.

“During the months of January, February, March, and April 2017, NDI provided training for CPP, CNRP, and three smaller parties on a wide variety of political party strengthening topics. NDI offered each party the opportunity to indicate what issues they wanted to receive training on,” he added.

“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.”

Cavanaugh noted that NDI submitted its registration application to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation on Sept. 21, and said the organization was expecting a favorable review by the government.

This week is not the first time NDI has been accused by the CPP or CPP-aligned groups of trying to undermine Cambodia’s government.

In May, CPP lawmaker Chheang Vun said four NGOs that run or fund programs in Cambodia, including NDI, and the U.S. government were working to instigate “color revolutions” in the country, during a presentation he gave at parliament.

The Phnom Penh Post quoted Chheang Vun accusing “powerful countries” like the U.S. and their intelligence arms of pushing regime change through civil society actors in “small countries” that don’t follow their interests.

In addition to NDI, the lawmaker also named NGOs National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and Freedom House, and also referred to the Open Society Institute—an apparent reference to the Open Societies Foundation (OSF), founded by billionaire investor and philanthropist George Soros.

Reported by Sothearin Yeang for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.