Cambodia Rejects Global Criticism of NGO, Media Crackdown as ‘Interference’ in Its Internal Affairs

cambodia-kampong-cham-radio-aug-2017.jpg Kampong Cham radio headquarters in Kampong Cham province, Aug. 24, 2017.
Photo courtesy of Kampong Cham radio

Cambodia’s government on Friday dismissed a deluge of global criticism over its recent crackdown on NGOs and independent media outlets, saying the international community has no right to dictate its internal affairs.

In one week, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government has expelled U.S.-funded NGO the National Democratic Institute (NDI), suspended several radio stations that aired content by U.S. broadcasters Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, and threatened to shutter the English language Cambodia Daily newspaper.

The NDI was accused by government-aligned Fresh News of helping the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) unseat the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) ahead of June commune elections and a general vote scheduled for 2018, but was kicked out by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for operating while its registration was pending, citing a need to strengthen “national sovereignty.”

The independent Cambodian radio stations, which had broadcast content critical of the government, were suspended on various technicalities for violating their agreements with the Ministry of Information, while the Cambodia Daily—which has also published reports attacking ruling party policies—was recently handed a U.S. $6.3 million tax bill and given until Sept. 4 to pay it or face closure.

Three other radio stations were also closed by the Ministry of Information on Thursday. All three had aired programs by RFA and VOA.

On Thursday and Friday, the United Nations’ human rights agency, U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, and several U.S. Congressmen criticized Cambodia’s government in statements decrying the country’s increasingly restrictive political atmosphere and what they saw as a narrowing of freedom of expression in the lead up to elections next year.

The most measured criticism came from the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR), which expressed concern over Cambodia’s recent actions and called for the government to “guarantee full political and civil rights, and media freedoms” ahead of the 2018 vote.

“We have concerns that NDI was closed without due process, and are worried about the overall deterioration of the environment for human rights defenders and civil society in Cambodia,” the OHCHR said in a statement Friday, urging the government to “ensure due process in all measures taken, including the right to appeal, and to respect the rights to freedom of association and expression.”

On Friday, Human Rights Watch called on Cambodia’s government to “end its escalating campaign of politically-motivated harassment, intimidation, and legal action” against the media, NGOs, and rights campaigners, highlighting its “widening … efforts to curtail or silence independent voices in the country.”

“The Cambodian government’s shutdown of independent media outlets and a respected democracy promotion group shows that Hun Sen is intensifying efforts to curb criticism of his rule,” deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said in a statement.

“Diplomats and donors should put Hun Sen on notice that if he doesn’t reverse course, elections in 2018 won’t be considered credible.”

A day earlier, U.S. Congressman Ed Royce called on Washington to “stand with the people of Cambodia against their government’s slide toward dictatorship,” while Congressmen Alan Lowenthal and Steve Chabot—the co-chairs of the Congressional Cambodia Caucus—urged the international community to confront Hun Sen’s government about its attempts to “curtail the freedoms of the Cambodian people.”

Government response

Government spokesperson Phay Siphan on Friday dismissed the various statements as “interference” in Cambodia’s affairs, adding that there was “nothing new” in U.S.-based criticism of his country.

“The government’s decisions were purely made on a legal basis and the basis of Cambodian sovereignty, since we are not an ally orbiting any foreign country—we are independent,” he said.

“As for democracy, our citizens are the ones who play a crucial role in terms of participation, election management as well as election laws and election monitoring. This is a Cambodian interest, not an American … interest.”

The CNRP, however, issued a statement Friday suggesting that not all Cambodians were behind the government’s recent actions and expressing “serious concerns” over actions it said “will negatively affect the process of the upcoming 2018 national election.”

“The CNRP urges the government to reconsider its actions and permit the NDI, as well as those radio stations that have been banned by the Ministry of Information, to reopen [in Cambodia],” the opposition party said.

“The CNRP would also like to call on the international community to intervene [in this matter] so as to ensure the respect of press freedom and democracy in Cambodia for the benefit of the normalization of the political situation and to ensure free and fair elections.”

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

Reported by Sothearin Yeang and Sobratsavyouth Hang for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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