An Economy and Finance Ministry spokesman denied any political motive for investigating NGOs and media outlets over tax payments on Tuesday, saying private enterprises were also under scrutiny.
Over the past two weeks, the ministry’s tax department has claimed The Cambodia Daily owes $6.3 million in unpaid taxes, asked the Information Ministry to investigate the licensing of Voice of America and Radio Free Asia related to tax collection, and requested meetings with rights groups Licadho and Adhoc as well as the Committee for Free and Fair Elections (Comfrel).
Meas Soksensan, a secretary-general at the ministry, said he was unaware of the specifics of the investigations and was not a legal expert, but that the process was in line with the government’s goals of increasing tax revenues.
“It is the [taxation department’s] authority,” he said. “It can send [letters] to not only the organizations, but also the companies who do not pay the taxes.”
“Please don’t be surprised, because there are many ways of strengthening the mechanisms to collect income,” he said. “We are trying hard within three to five years to make our country’s revenue increase…while our income is getting better, we are losing some [foreign] aid.”
Naly Pilorge, deputy advocacy director at Licadho, said on Tuesday that the organization had received a letter last Wednesday from the department requesting a meeting over unspecified tax-related matters on Friday, but had asked for a delay since Licadho president Pung Chhiv Kek had pre-scheduled obligations.
The organization began paying payroll taxes last year, according to Ms. Pilorge, who said the process had been delayed by a registration process that took eight months.
Thun Saray, president of Adhoc, said on Tuesday that his organization sought and received a postponement of a meeting with the tax department until Tuesday.
Yoeurng Sotheara, Comfrel’s law and monitoring officer, said the organization met with the tax department over what he said was confusion over rent and payroll taxes, which the organization paid together, but the department tracked separately.
“They asked us for further submission of documents such as audit reports, annual financial reports, statement of bank reports, rental contracts and employment contracts,” he wrote in a message. “There is no problem and they said Comfrel has done a great job compared to others.”
Mr. Sotheara said the department did not name the other organizations. Markus Karbaum, a German political scientist with a focus on Cambodia, said in an email that he would “assume the government acts legally as long as it does not deliberately select few human rights defenders, election watchdogs and other critical organizations.”
“There are thousands of registered NGOs in Cambodia and I assume most of them are not invited to a meeting by the tax department,” he said.