Cambodian government shuts down pro-democracy US charity and expels foreign staff

Cascade of legal cases is straight from the political playbook of Hun Sen, who has cornered opponents throughout his three-decade rule, especially in the run-up to elections

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 August, 2017, 5:30pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 August, 2017, 5:30pm

Cambodia on Wednesday closed a prominent American pro-democracy organisation and ordered its foreign staff to leave the country, the latest salvo by Prime Minister Hun Sen against perceived critics before a general election next year.

The order comes a day after the strongman premier threatened The Cambodia Daily, one of the country’s few remaining critical newspapers, with closure over an alleged unpaid tax bill of US$6.3 million, calling the owners “thieves”.

In a statement on Wednesday the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said foreign employees of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) have seven days to leave after the group allegedly failed to formally register or pay correct taxes.

“Authorities are geared up to take the same measures against any foreign association or non-government organisation that fails to abide” by Cambodia’s laws, the statement added.

In recent weeks a string of foreign-funded organisations including the NDI have been named in Cambodia’s pro-government press or by officials as facing tax or regulatory investigations.

Analysts say the cascade of legal cases is straight from the political playbook of Hun Sen, who has cornered opponents throughout his three-decade rule, particularly in the run-up to elections.

Cambodians are expected to go to the polls in just under a year, in a vote many expect to be a close-run affair.

Authorities are geared up to take the same measures against any foreign association or non-government organisation that fails to abide
Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Apart from The Cambodia Daily, which is owned by an American, the US-funded Radio Free Asia and Voice of America have also been legally targeted.

All have denied wrongdoing and said they are being selected for their independent reporting.

In a statement the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia said The Cambodia Daily “has a history of running stories that have angered the government, leading many to believe the tax department is being used to target critics” before the poll.

The NDI, which says it works to strengthen democratic institutions worldwide, has been operating in Cambodia since 1992.

In recent weeks, pro-government media have accused the organisation of helping Cambodia’s opposition party to try to topple the government.

The NDI, which receives funds from the US government and is chaired by former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

It insists it is “strictly non-partisan” and also trains members of Hun Sen’s ruling party.

To his supporters Hun Sen, one of the world’s longest serving leaders, has brought growth and stability to an impoverished country ravaged by decades of war.

But critics say corruption, inequality and rights abuses have also flourished.

In recent years he has grown closer to China while criticising the US, one of Cambodia’s largest donors.

In 2015 the government passed a broadly-worded law regulating NGOs. Critics warned the legislation would make it much easier to close organisations deemed critical of the government.

Impoverished Cambodia is home to some 5,000 NGOs.