Foreign staff given one week to leave the country after the U.S.-affiliated National Democratic Institute was ordered to cease operations in Cambodia on Wednesday will be forcibly removed if they fail to leave on their own accord, a CPP official said.
The expulsion of NDI for allegedly not fulfilling tax and registration obligations saw recent and mounting government threats against U.S.-funded groups finally become a reality.
Following the announcement, a ruling party spokesman said NDI foreign employees would be ejected from the country “by force” if they do not willingly leave.
News that the nonprofit organization working to support democracy was being shutdown came in a news release from the Foreign Affairs Ministry shortly before noon on Wednesday.
Authorities “have reached the decision to stop the operation of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in Cambodia and to expel its foreign staff from the Kingdom within seven days after the official notification of this decision,” said a statement from the ministry.
The statement did not state how many NDI foreign staff were in Cambodia, but it is believed to be a handful.
It cites the 2015 Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations (Lango), which has been widely criticized for its vague wording, and accuses NDI of operating in Cambodia without being registered with the ministry until it filed a request in June last year.
NDI, which has been working in Cambodia since 1992, has continued to operate pending a decision “with total contempt,” the statement adds, before issuing a warning to other foreign organizations.
“The competent authorities are geared up to take the same measures against any foreign or non-government organization that fails to abide by the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations,” it says.
Contacted after the statement’s release, CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said NDI’s foreign employees would be forcibly removed if they failed to comply with the 7-day deadline.
“You are working in our country, you cannot do something above the law,” Mr. Eysan said. “No need for you to volunteer to move. It will use the law to force you to move.”
Mr. Eysan said he was unclear as to why the Foreign Affairs Ministry had failed to respond to NDI’s application to register more than 15 months ago.
“They have specific reasons, not just foolish ones,” he said.
The ministry’s spokesman could not be reached for comment. The NDI, which is funded by a variety of sources, did not respond to requests for comment.
The Institute is not the first nonprofit organization to be ordered out of the country. In 2005, environmental NGO Global Witness was expelled from Cambodia after it was replaced as the government’s forest monitor two years before.
Prime Minister Hun Sen had previously threatened to expel the international group, based in London and Washington in 2001, after it released a report accusing the government of aiding illegal loggers or not doing enough to stop them. Mr. Hun Sen backed down when the group apologized for releasing the report to the media without consulting the government.
NDI’s expulsion comes less than a week after documents leaked on Facebook and circulated on government-affiliated media appeared to show political cooperation between NDI and the opposition party, amid increased tension in recent weeks between the government and U.S.-backed NGOs and media outlets.
Another document leaked by the government-affiliated Kon Khmer Facebook page on Tuesday night purportedly shows a 2011 email sent by Tioulong Saumura, an opposition lawmaker and wife of exiled former opposition leader Sam Rainsy, in which she details meetings with NDI, the National Endowment for Democracy and the International Republican Institute.
In the email, the authenticity of which could not be verified, Ms. Saumura claims she stressed the similarities between Cambodia, Tunisia and Libya, adding that all three organizations pledged allegiance to the Sam Rainsy Party, which merged with the Human Rights Party to become the CNRP in 2012. Ms. Saumura could not be reached by email.
An article on government mouthpiece Fresh News accused the three NGOs of being “midwives” to the CNRP who have “masterminded to help the opposition party to organize a color revolution in Cambodia.”
Radio Free Asia and Voice of America have also both been accused of not fulfilling tax and registration obligations. The Cambodia Daily, whose publisher is a U.S. citizen, was hit with a $6.3 million unaudited tax bill and threatened with imminent closure if it is not paid by September 4.
Writing on his Facebook page on Wednesday, CNRP deputy president Eng Chhay Eang appeared to mock Prime Minister Hun Sen over the shutting of NDI and the threat against The Cambodia Daily.
“The political strategy to create an excuse to shut down national and international civil society NGOs and independent media in Cambodia has shown the general public that the most powerful man is in despair in next July 2018 national election,” Mr. Chhay Eang wrote.
The U.S. Embassy released a statement on its Facebook page claiming that the NDI had also worked with the CPP and maintained its nonpartisan status in Cambodia.
“The NDI is impartial and works with all major parties, including the CPP. In 2017, the NDI trained the CPP on external communications, campaign planning, election observation, and voter messaging,” it said, branding the Fresh News coverage as “inaccurate and biased.”
“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?” it asked.
Charles Santiago, chair of the Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), spoke of the group’s concern over the decision to shut down NDI through Lango, and said it was likely part of the CPP’s efforts to stifle criticism ahead of next year’s crucial general election.
“We are extremely concerned about today’s announcement by the Cambodian government that it would be forcing the closure of the National Democratic Institute’s operations in Cambodia and expelling the organization’s foreign staff within seven days,” Mr. Santiago said in a statement.
“Serious concerns about the LANGO’s provisions, and the potential for their misuse, have been expressed by APHR and others 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.”