UPDATED at 05:33 P.M. on 2017-08-23
Cambodia on Wednesday expelled a U.S. NGO promoting political participation and shut down two independent domestic radio stations that relayed broadcasts critical of the government, highlighting concerns over the country’s political atmosphere in the lead up to general elections next year.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that the National Democratic Institute (NDI), which receives funding from the U.S. government, can no longer operate in Cambodia and its foreign staff members must leave the country within seven days, citing a need to strengthen “rule of law” and “national sovereignty.”
The NDI is accused of having violated Cambodia’s Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations (LANGO) by operating without a valid Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) “with total contempt” while its registration application was pending approval with government ministries.
The LANGO was passed in 2015 with unanimous approval by ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) lawmakers, amid a boycott of parliament by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), and 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 shutdowns.
According to Wednesday’s statement, the NDI is also accused of failing to comply with Cambodia’s tax laws, although details of the purported violations were not provided.
The tax allegations come amid a larger crackdown prompted by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s recommendation at an Aug. 5 cabinet meeting that government agencies investigate alleged back taxes owed by media outlets and civil society organizations.
Government spokesperson Phay Siphan on Wednesday applauded Hun Sen for “taking measures to protect Cambodia’s interests, sovereignty, and independence” by acting against the NDI.
“The concept of ‘human rights and democracy’ is applied solely in order to rob the Cambodian people of their will and ability to make general decisions,” he said in a post on his Facebook page.
“The end goal of such application is to divide Cambodia internally and pose direct opposition to Hun Sen, who was legitimately elected through a general ballot and enjoys genuine support from the country’s citizens.”
The ministry’s statement followed the publishing last week of two documents allegedly leaked from a NDI training course in March for the CNRP on “unseating the ruling party in the 2017-2018 elections” by government-aligned media group Fresh News, citing a post on the Facebook page of an anonymous user.
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,” scheduled for July 2018.
The CPP won commune elections held on June 4, 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.
John Cavanaugh, NDI’s resident program director in Cambodia, has said that his organization is non-partisan and committed to helping improve democracy in the country, and noted that the NDI submitted its registration application in September last year.
The NDI in a statement on Wednesday expressed "deep disappointment" in the decision by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to shut down its office in Cambodia.
"We are surprised and saddened by this development," said NDI president Kenneth Wollack. "For 25 years in Cambodia, NDI has worked with all major political parties, including the ruling party. 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."
The U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh earlier on Wednesday had rejected the allegations against the NDI in a post on its Facebook page, saying the organization has a valid MoU with the National Election Committee (NEC), Cambodia’s top electoral body, and works closely with both the NEC and the Ministry of Interior.
The embassy noted that the NDI had also trained the CPP this year on communications, campaign planning, election observation, and voter messaging, and said the organization had provided similar training to the CNRP and three other political parties.
The post added that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had only accepted the NDI’s registration application in September after the organization made several attempts to submit it, and violated the LANGO by failing to act on it until this month—nearly a year later. Article 14 of the law states that the ministry must make a decision within 45 working days of receiving an application.
“Coming just two months after Cambodia’s very successful commune council elections, the decision to shut down the NDI raises a fundamental question: Is the Cambodian government committed to democracy,” the embassy asked, calling for comments from the public.
The U.S. State Department said in a briefing Wednesday that it was "deeply concerned by the deterioration in Cambodia's democratic climate in recent weeks," which it attributed to "troubling government actions" including the decision to expel NDI, and called for the organization to be allowed to continue its activities so that the country's 2018 elections can take place in a "free and open environment."
Late on Wednesday, Fresh News cited an unnamed senior government official in a report as saying that Cambodian nationalists and CPP supporters are preparing to hold a mass rally against the U.S. Embassy in reaction to its Facebook post about the NDI, due to its “inflammatory nature and implication that the U.S. does not respect Cambodia’s sovereignty.”
Local NGOs Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL) and Cambodia Center for Human Rights (CCHR) also took issue with the government’s actions against the NDI, as did the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR).
COMFREL executive director Kul Panha wrote on his Facebook page Wednesday that “in addition to being politically motivated, the shutdown of NDI operations has no legal basis besides the 2015 LANGO,” noting that the organization initially submitted its registration application in June last year in response to the adoption of the law and maintains an MoU with the NEC.
CCHR President Chak Sopheap urged the government to follow due process and called for a “thorough, transparent, and fair investigation” into the allegations, with the NDI being given sufficient time to respond.
“This case seems to confirm the worst fears of civil society about the mandatory registration requirement in the LANGO—that it would give the authorities excessive and arbitrary control over NGO activities by enabling them to reject applications and to arbitrarily delay decisions,” she said in a Facebook post.
“In this case, the lack of a decision on NDI's MoU application has made NDI extremely vulnerable, which is unlikely to be a coincidence.”
APHR chair Charles Santiago, a member of Malaysia’s parliament, told RFA’s Khmer Service that his group was “extremely concerned” by the government’s announcement, noting that the APHR and other organizations have questioned the LANGO’s provisions and the potential for their misuse in the past.
“Shuttering NDI without giving them an adequate opportunity to respond to these allegations has brought these fears to life,” he said.
“The fact that this comes in a context of increasing repression of freedom of expression and civil society space in Cambodia is all the more worrying, and hints at continued attempts by the ruling party to consolidate power ahead of next year's national elections.”
Off the air
Also on Wednesday, the Ministry of Information ordered independent Cambodian radio stations Women’s Media Center of Cambodia (WMC) and Moha Nokor—both of which have relayed broadcasts critical of the government—to suspend operations for violating terms of their license agreements.
The ministry informed WMC—which can be heard throughout 75 percent of Cambodia on 102FM—that it had violated its 2006 agreement by relaying news from RFA and Voice of America (VOA) for more than 30 minutes each, prompting the station to end relays of the broadcasts.
WMC had regularly allotted one and a half hours and two hours of air time per day to VOA and RFA, respectively, and while the station’s director Chea Sundaneth acknowledged that doing so violated the license agreement, she questioned why the ministry had only recently taken action.
“Such a program in the past, generally, did not pose any problems,” she said, adding that the ministry had previously “turned a blind eye” to her station’s operations.
Moha Nokor, which broadcasts on 93.5FM and also aired programs by the CNRP in addition to broadcasts by RFA and VOA, was ordered to terminate its operations Wednesday after the Ministry of Information said it had aired “outside programs without requesting authorization.”
Moha Nokor’s managing director Yee Chhorvoan told RFA she found the ministry’s decision “unreasonable” and said the station should have been notified about any violations before being shut down.
“We have done everything according to the ministry’s [orders] and we should have received a warning so that we could make adjustments,” she said.
“I thought I was invited [to a meeting with the ministry] for a negotiation, but then I received a surprise.”
CNRP spokesperson Yim Sovann said he was shocked to learn of Moha Nokor’s termination and said the shutdown of both radio stations would have a negative impact on the lead up to the 2018 election.
“This is politically motived,” he said, adding that “the 2018 election will be neither free nor fair and this will affect the process of the election campaign.”
Ministry of Information spokesperson Ouk Kimseng said the suspensions were not politically motivated, and that the government was simply enforcing the law.
He said that all media entities must “go with the flow,” adding that “institutions that do not comply with the law will be subject to the same treatment” as the two radio stations.
Several other local radio stations in various provinces that lease airtime to VOA and RFA have also reported receiving warnings of violating their agreements with the ministry.
Reported by Neang Ieng and Sel San for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.