Cambodia’s elections are still months away, but a long-simmering debate over the political role of a group with links to the US Republican Party appears to have reached a boiling point—just as the Republicans prepare to take full control of the US Congress in Washington.
The issue hit home earlier this month when Kem Sokha, a former Funcinpec senator, opened the Cambodian Center for Human Rights on the strength of a $450,000 grant from the International Republican Institute. Although the institute has been in Cambodia for almost a decade, this marks the first time it has stepped so openly into Cambodian politics.
And that’s why some in the Cambodian government are nervous. The day after the new center opened, National Assembly President Prince Norodom Ranariddh—Kem Sokha’s former party boss—criticized the institute, claiming it was a tool of opposition leader Sam Rainsy and was trying to help him to topple the government.
On the same day the prince made those remarks—from which he later backed away—government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said Kem Sokha’s group would not get a broadcast license it seeks, and claimed that the center was biased.
On Monday, Khieu Kanharith expanded on those comments, claiming that the IRI was trying to “buy” Cambodians into changing their government.
The institute, which is funded by the US government through its National Endowment for Democracy, denies the timing of the grant is anything more than coincidence. Officials say they are merely here to build democracy from the grassroots—just like Kem Sokha.
“We’ve all got the same goals. It’s something we very much believe in,” institute spokeswoman Johanna Kao said.
Furthermore, nothing should be read into the fact that the grant for Kem Sokha’s center comes just as Cambodia gears up for next year’s general elections—other than the goal of building Cambodia’s democracy, Kao said.
“There’s always money for election-related things,” she said.
That may not be enough for the government. Some have been privately alarmed at the attitude of the Republican party in Washington, which just swept to victory in the US’ congressional elections earlier this month.
Perhaps most alarming to some Cambodian officials is the figure of Senator Mitch McConnell. The Republican from Kentucky state, who is poised to take control of the Senate’s powerful Appropriations Committee, is an avowed foe of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Earlier this year, he called publicly called for “regime change” in Cambodia. Although McConnell is not on the institute’s board, he did send a letter of congratulations to Kem Sokha during the opening of the new center. The letter, which condemned the Cambodian government, was written on Appropriations Committee stationary.
Kao downplayed the letter and any connections between the institute and the Republicans.
“We’re not linked to the Republican Party in the US. The statement by Senator McConnell was just in support of CCHR,” Kao said.
When still-unidentified men tossed a grenade into the thick of a Sam Rainsy Party rally in 1997, one of those wounded was institute mission director Ron Abney. That the US Federal Bureau of Investigation has said it suspects soldiers loyal to Hun Sen has earned the premier the lasting wrath of the institute and Republicans like McConnell.
Another group with links to the US’ Democratic Party, the National Democratic Institute, has also been quietly active in Cambodian politics for years with funding from the National Endowment for Democracy.
For nearly a week now, NDI staffers have been working long hours at a Phnom Penh hotel, training Sam Rainsy Party activists and politicians to organize voting drives and running workshops on how to handle the media.
NDI has avoided government wrath in part because it offers its services to all parties—even if, by NDI’s own admission, the Sam Rainsy Party stands to gain the most from the institute’s tutelage.
“We’re guests. We’re not trying to undermine the sovereignty of anybody,” institute program manager Dominic Cardy said.
But on April 12, Venezuela’s demagogic but democratically elected President Hugo Chavez was overthrown in a coup d’etat that killed at least 18. Several in the junta’s crowd had links to the NED, the IRI, or both.
Within hours of the coup, IRI President George Folsom issued a statement calling the coup a moment in which “the Venezuelan people rose up to defend democracy.” Folsom’s statement also went on to boast that his institute “has served as a bridge between the nation’s political parties and all civil society groups” in bringing the coup, which he saw as a chance to “forge a new democratic future.”
But within hours, the coup had collapsed, Chavez was back in office and the rallying cry against “Yankee imperialism” had been raised.
But all of that was a different time and a different place, Kao said.
“We’ve been open and [Kem] Sokha has been open in what he’s trying to achieve with the radio station and that is to be able to provide information to the people in an unfettered way. I don’t know why the government wouldn’t want something like this,” Kao said.
The US, whose Agency for International Development put up the money the IRI then passed onto Kem Sokha, has downplayed the institute’s funding for the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.
“We support the right to free flow of information and broadcast is a great way to do this,” US Embassy spokeswoman Heide Bronke said.
As with many others on the front lines of international diplomacy, some officials in and around the US Embassy here say privately they often find themselves caught between hardliners in Washington and the government with whom they are supposed to keep warm relations.
Part of the problem may be perception. Despite the fact that the US is now giving more aid to Cambodia than it has in years, the country is still beneath Washington’s radar.
The cost of this debate could come at the expense of the larger issue it points to, because equal access to the media is shaping up to be one of the key questions of the election.
To that end, the behavior of McConnell, IRI, or any other critics of the Cambodian government shouldn’t distract from the real business at hand, Kao said.
“What IRI is trying to do in Cambodia is build democracy in Cambodia,” she said, “and that’s the beginning and the end of it.”
(Additional reporting by Yun Samean)
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