Municipal officials called five staff members of non-governmental organizations and a well know TV presenter for questioning on June 4 over an anticorruption concert at the Olympic Stadium on May 30, during which US Ambassador Carol Rodley said that Cambodia loses some $500 million each year to corruption.
The ambassador’s comments set off a firestorm of criticism and indignation in government circles and resulted in three strongly worded letters of rebuke, including a statement from the Ministry of Foreign affairs that reminded the foreign diplomatic corps not to meddle in the internal affairs of Cambodia.
Phnom Penh Municipal Governor Kep Chuktema said on June 5 that the organizers and presenter were called for questioning as permission for the concert was given on condition the government was “not attacked.”
The five concert organizers who showed up at the questioning were from Pact Cambodia, the Cambodian Defenders Project, and the Center for Development and Peace, CDP President Yang Kim Eng said.
“It was not tense,” Mr Kim Eng said by telephone.
“They wanted us to explain. We didn’t do anything wrong. What we did didn’t affect the government,” he said.
“The expressed opinions of some guest speakers didn’t reflect the [ideas] of organizers,” he continued, adding that the US ambassador’s comments didn’t reflect the views of the sponsors, the Coalition of Civil Society Organizations against Corruption, a group of 42 civil society groups.
At the May 30 concert, the ambassador also called for the Cambodian government to pass long-delayed anticorruption legislation, which first reached the National Assembly in 1994. She said that such a law could only help the country survive the global economic crisis.
A host of local and international groups have been calling on the government for years to pass the anti-graft law, while international anti-corruption monitors have consistently ranked Cambodia high on indexes of countries where corruption is a problem.
CDP Executive Director Sok Sam Oeun said that those present at the June 4 meeting had felt intimidated by the questioning.
“They said that we are responsible,” Mr Sam Oeun, adding that it wasn’t made clear by the municipal officials what they meant regarding taking responsibility for the perceived infraction at the concert.
“We don’t know their intentions,” he said. “We feel that, in the future, we don’t dare do this again, out of fear of being questioned again.”
The municipality summoned CTN host Khieu Sansana but she did not turn up on June 4, Mr Sam Oeun said. Attempts to contact Ms Sansana for comment were unsuccessful on June 5.
Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema said that the questioning was nothing more than an attempt to get explanations about what happened.
“They asked for permission, they made a contract promising that there would be no attacks on the government,” the governor said. “We wanted to ask how it happened.”
Municipal lawyer Yim Sary, who was present at the meeting, said there are no plans to question the US ambassador.
“There is no right to question her,” he said. “As local authorities, they have the right to invite people for questioning to explain the disorder that was contrary to the municipality’s instruction,” he said.
The US Embassy has been silent about the controversy and on June 5 the embassy’s spokesman John Johnson again declined to comment on the matter.
Chan Soveth, chief of the monitoring section of local rights group Adhoc, raised concerns that legal lawsuits would follow the questions as in the past when charges of incitement, defamation and disinformation have been levied against NGOs.
“The government should not take any measures against the people who fight corruption,” he said. “The government should take measures against the people who commit corruption.”