Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen speaks to media in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen speaks to media in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government has entered a new phase of repression, one that has targeted foreign governmental and nongovernmental organizations and media ahead of crucial elections scheduled for next year.

While authorities have persistently pestered civil society groups Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) have frequently labelled as loyal tools of the political opposition, the current campaign threatens to permanently uproot some of the country’s most prominent and long-standing democracy promoting and checking and balancing outfits.

The foreign ministry announced on Wednesday that it had ordered the National Democratic Institute, a US State Department-funded democracy-promoting organization, to ceases its operations on the grounds it had not fulfilled its tax and registration obligations, and had provided the political opposition plans to overthrow the government.

NDI, which has operations around the world, retorted that it is strictly non-partisan. All of its foreign staff will be expelled within the week. The US Embassy responded with a message on its Facebook page. “Is #Cambodia Committed to Democracy?” it asked, telling the Cambodia public: “You Decide!”

On the same day, the ministry of information said it had revoked the license of Mohanokor Radio station, a popular broadcaster which has sold airtime to the US Congress-funded news outlets Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, both seen by Hun Sen as critical of the CPP government and supportive of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP)-led opposition.

On August 5, The Cambodia Daily, an English-language newspaper that is owned by an American citizen and operated since 1993, was handed a US$6.3 million tax bill dating back a decade and given 30 days to pay up or face closure. The paper’s owners dispute the amount, claiming the tax department hasn’t even audited its accounts. Hun Sen this week referred to the paper, long a thorn in his side, as a “thief.”

“We are definitely witnessing a one-sided renegotiation of the political freedoms that have existed since [the early 1990s], but it remains to be seen just how far it will go,” said Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia.

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen speaks to media after registering for a local election in Kandal province on September 1, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring 

Despite local and international outcries over the clampdown and its implications for the future of democracy in the country, the foreign ministry has said it is “geared up” to take down more foreign outfits that do not conform to the country’s laws. On August 5, Hun Sen order government departments to look into the tax status of various NGOs.

The government had earlier imposed strict new regulations on NGOs in a move many viewed at the time as an attempt to squeeze more funds from the sector. But the rhetoric surrounding the clampdown indicates a move against US-backed civil society at a time Cambodia is increasingly less reliant on Western aid and more on Chinese capital.

The clampdown mirrors recent government harassment of the CNRP, the second largest party in parliament that threatens to win next year’s elections if held free and fair. Sam Rainsy resigned as CNRP’s president in February after amendments to the political parties law, hastily-passed that month, would have absolved the party if it had kept him as leader.

Kem Sokha, who took over as the party’s president, spent most of last year hiding in the CNRP’s Phnom Penh headquarters to avoid arrest over a sex scandal that he says is politically-motivated.

If the government used the amended political party law to target the CNRP, then the controversial Law on Associations and NGOs, passed in July 2015, is now being wielded to provide legal grounds for quickly closing foreign-owned NGOs and media outlets for tax and registration purposes.

Kem Sokha (L), leader of Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) greets supporters in a rally on the last day of the commune election campaign in Phnom Penh on June 2, 2017. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

Hun Sen, who frequently scolds Western governments for commenting on his country’s affairs despite his own public commentary on issues like Brexit and the US election of Donald Trump, has recently ramped up his anti-Western rhetoric.

Earlier this month he accused the European Union’s ambassador to Cambodia, George Edgar, of creating “a battlefield headquarters” in Cambodia, reference to the so-called ‘situation room’, a collection of election-monitoring NGOs that receive funding from the EU.

On Thursday, the strongman leader referred to American democracy as “bloody and brutal” while accusing the US broadly of political interference in his country. In an open letter on Thursday, the government stated its “clear message again to the US Embassy that we defend our national sovereignty.”

Still, there are mixed views about the motivation and timing of the anti-American clampdown. Many analysts believe it is being driven by growing fears about the next general election, set for July 2018.

“The aim is to prevent expert, credible and influential organizations from monitoring the 2018 elections,” said Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy at Occidental College in Los Angeles.

“It’s really harmful and not a good environment for the election next year,” said Sereiboth Noan, an independent Cambodian blogger. “The ruling party is trying to isolate the CNRP ahead of the election… It is to ensure no one can threaten its power.”

Supporters of Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) gather in a rally on the last day of the commune election campaign in Phnom Penh on June 2, 2017. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won June’s commune election handily, but with diminished returns from the result five years earlier. The CPP won 1,156 communes, down from 1,592 in 2012, while the CNRP won 489 communes, up exponentially from just 40.

“Nothing can convince the public that democracy in Cambodia is healthy,” said Mu Sochua, a CNRP vice-president. “To the contrary, democracy is rapidly coming to a very critical point and can be further suspended as we are moving to the 2018 election. Free and fair elections are at stake.”

A CPP spokesman could not be reached for comment.

While the US Embassy has responded strongly to the clampdown, many wonder if President Trump will comment directly on the issue. A US State Department spokesperson said on Wednesday that Washington is “deeply concerned”, but there is little chance the White House will impose sanctions, analysts say.

At the same time, Hun Sen’s move against Western NGOs mirrors other authoritarian countries’ tactics, notably at a time the country has taken governance and other cues from China.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) walks with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (R) during a meeting at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh on October 13, 2016. Photo: AFP/ Tang Chhin Sothy

On January 1, China introduced a new overseas NGO law that, among other requirements, changed tax rules and how international NGOs officially register with the government.

Many of the estimated 7,000 or so in mainland China had previously operated in a grey area, either unregistered or registered as businesses, but are now being brought under government inspection and control, according to reports on the clampdown.

Russia, arguably the pioneer of using taxation to stifle NGOs, began auditing such groups as early as 2013 after a law passed that year required foreign-funded NGOs involved in political matters to register as “foreign agents.” Many have since been closed as a result of the regulation.

Egypt, meanwhile, has jailed civil society members it has deemed as threatening to stability.

“I see the Egypt and Russia playbook in all this,” said Sophal Ear, noting that both countries have also expelled the National Democratic Institute in recent years. However, he noted one potent difference: unlike Russia or Egypt, Cambodia is only expelling NGO workers, not jailing them – at least for the moment.

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