Cambodia's dream of democracy is dying

Prime Minister Hun Sen of the Cambodian People's Party has ruled Cambodia for more than 30 years.

Story highlights

  • Nathan A. Thompson sees alarming uptick in attacks on press and NGOs in Cambodia
  • Ruling party is threatening to undermine Cambodia's democratic gains, he says

Nathan A. Thompson is president of the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia. For more information, please see www.nathanathompson.co.uk. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)Journalists in Cambodia are under siege. Scared of losing next year's general election, the ruling Cambodian People's Party has recently launched a series of attacks on anyone it deems a threat to its power.

After losing ground to the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party in June's local elections, it is paranoid that the tide of public opinion is turning against it.
In response to this crackdown, the US Embassy asked recently on its Facebook page, "Is #Cambodia Committed To Democracy?" Judging from repeated attacks on both nongovernmental organizations and newspapers, it appears the answer to the embassy's post is a hard no.
    Nathan A. Thompson
    In the past month, American-run media outlets were repeatedly threatened or told to close entirely.
    The Cambodia Daily -- an English-language newspaper founded by American journalist Bernard Krisher in 1993 -- was slapped with a $6.3 million tax bill on August 4 and given 30 days to pay. Unable to comply, it looks set to collapse.
    The bill was calculated by the tax department without any audit of the paper's books, Jodie DeJonge, Cambodia Daily editor-in-chief, told me. The tax office has offered no opportunity to appeal or negotiate.
    Hun Sen, who has been Prime Minister of Cambodia for 32 years, denied the move was politically motivated. If Cambodians go abroad and do not fulfill their obligations to their host state, they would face the same action, he said, quoted by Fresh News -- a media outlet branded "a bludgeon for the ruling party" by The Phnom Penh Post, another English daily.
    Sen then called the Cambodia Daily a "thief" and said to pay up or leave. A restrained speech for a man who earlier this year told opposition figure Sam Rainsy to "prepare your coffin."
    Blows continued to come from all directions. Radio Free Asia, Voice of Democracy and Voice of America fell silent as their host networks were ordered to stop broadcasting "outside programs without requesting authorization."
    These radio stations have long been a target of the ruling Cambodian People's Party because they broadcast programs critical of the government in the local Khmer language. It seems keeping information away from the people is a tactic in the run-up to the 2018 elections.
    Now that $500 million in Chinese loans dwarfs America's $35 million in aid contributions to Cambodia, the Cambodian government has been emboldened to take down pro-democracy organizations it used to tolerate for the sake of relations with the United States. Last week, the National Democratic Institute, a US-funded nongovernmental organization, was told to close and foreign staff were given seven days to leave for not registering with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation or the tax office.
    Leaks detailing assistance given by the institute to the opposition party appeared in Fresh News. Ministers accused it of colluding with the Cambodia National Rescue Party.
    Cambodian People's Party spokesman Sok Eysan said the National Democratic Institute was not "neutral and independent" and had not complied with local laws. However, the institute said in statement that it attempted to fulfill its legal obligations in September 2016 but had been ignored.
    However, allegations that the institute and its parent organization, the National Endowment for Democracy, have a secret agenda are not baseless. They have been around since the foundation took over pro-democracy duties from the CIA in 1983.
    "I've heard rumors for years that the institutes might be recipients of CIA funds," said political scientist Karen Paget, author of "Patriotic Betrayal: The Inside Story of the CIA's Secret Campaign to Enroll American Students in the Crusade Against Communism." "They ought to be held more accountable even if their activities appear to be aboveboard."
    Jane Riley Jacobsen, senior director of public affairs at NED, strongly rebuts that claim: "Speculation that the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) or NDI have a 'secret agenda' in Cambodia is wrong and baseless. NED has never had a relationship, financial or otherwise, with US Intelligence agencies, and to report rumors of this is irresponsible. Far from pursuing a covert agenda, NED is very transparent about its work and descriptions of all grants are listed on our website. NED supported its first project in Cambodia in 1989, with a grant to the Cambodian Documentation Center, which did critical work documenting the genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge. More recently, NED has maintained a very limited grants program in Cambodia addressing issues of corruption and accountability, the development of business organizations, encouraging good governance, protecting labor rights and encouraging civic engagement by young leaders. "
    Current funders of the National Democratic Institute include both the UK and Australian governments and Lockhead Martin, the arms manufacturer, according to its 2005 annual report -- the only one available on its website.
    However, the institute's critics in Cambodia have offered zero evidence that the organization is doing anything more than promoting democracy in a bipartisan manner to all parties. Unless you regard promoting democracy itself as a threatening activity.
    As the US Embassy pointed out in a statement, the National Democratic Institute offered the same training to the ruling party as it did to the opposition party.
    "This is just the latest action in the government's campaign to silence proponents of democracy, harass civil society and restrict the media," said Sen. John McCain in an August 24 statement. Even if there were compliance issues, the government has at best handled them in a churlish and unprofessional manner -- you don't just order an organization to close without due process.
    It's the same for the Cambodia Daily tax issue. What if it were a garment factory that had been remiss in paying tax?
    The garment industry is a key revenue stream for the developing nation and reportedly accounts for 80% of exports. The last thing the government would do is shut down a decent factory; it would negotiate a way to recoup the losses.
    The Cambodia Daily has offered to open its books to the tax department but has been ignored, according to DeJonge. Hardly the hallmarks of a typical tax dispute.
    Finally, Yat Run, owner of Lucky Lucky Motorcycles Shop in Phnom Penh, which also handles visa renewals, told local media that the immigration office ordered him to make sure all foreigners had proof of employment before issuing visas. In Cambodia, no work permits have been needed for visas up until now.
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    Cambodian visa laws are overdue for an overhaul, but given the current climate, journalists and foreign NGO workers are worried that their applications will now be considered by a hostile government. Many are married and have families here, some with local partners.
    The changes make it easy for the government to deny visas to free-lance journalists and correspondents who displease them. There has been no statement from the government on the changes, which only adds to a growing atmosphere of menace that many expect to thicken as the 2018 general elections draw closer.
    This story has been updated to include the comments of the National Endowment for Democracy.