Amid rising diplomatic tensions, the U.S. State Department on Thursday condemned the “deterioration in Cambodia’s democratic climate,” as a government-aligned website, citing anonymous officials, warned of mass nationalist protests against the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh.
The threat of protests capped off a dramatic Wednesday during which the Foreign Affairs Ministry ordered the National Democratic Institute (NDI), a U.S.-funded democracy promotion NGO, to cease its activities and gave its foreign staff seven days to leave the country.
Reacting to a U.S. Embassy Facebook post that evening questioning whether Cambodia was still a democracy, government mouthpiece Fresh News posted an article quoting “high-ranking government officials” who said potential protests could be led by unidentified “nationalist groups.”
“The sources clarified that this demonstration could be a mass protest against U.S Embassy in Phnom Penh like in the 1960s because the U.S act is interfering in Cambodia’s sovereignty,” the article said.
The embassy’s grounds near Wat Phnom were quiet on Thursday, with dozens of landscapers overhauling its fronting park.
A later post featured a photograph of Pan Khembunthorn, leader of the CPP-aligned Peace Youth League who in the past identified himself as the head of the Youth Federation of Senaneak, a group whose protest in October 2015 ended with the beating of two CNRP lawmakers outside the National Assembly by a mob that included members of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit. In 1964, protesters broke most windows in the old U.S. Embassy compound and destroyed a vehicle, according to an embassy telegram, which suggested the involvement of the Information Ministry. Fresh News carried photos of the event on Thursday, noting that “after May 17, 1965, the diplomat relationship between Cambodian and the U.S was cut off.”
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Cambodia had enjoyed “transparent, peaceful local elections” in June at a news conference in Washington early on Thursday morning Cambodia time.
“In the past two weeks, however, the achievement has been eclipsed by troubling government actions curtailing freedom of the press and civil society’s ability to operate,” she said, naming the expulsion of NDI and tax investigations into The Cambodia Daily, other independent media and NGOs.
The rare Cambodia-related statement from Washington is part of “what we would consider our calls to promote democracy,” she said. “And [the government] are clearly not doing that right now, and so we’re continuing to have conversations with them about that.”
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak declined to explain why officials seemed to be condoning protests to reporters until the Daily’s $6.3 million tax bill, which is contested by the newspaper’s publishers, was paid off. But Huy Vannak, an undersecretary of state at the ministry, posted a long Facebook post signed by the “Cambodian people” blaming the U.S. for repeating bombings that he said led to the rise of the Khmer Rouge and the subsequent genocide.
“We do not allow the blood of Cambodians to flow and our development to be disrupted by incitement of foreigners,” he wrote.