US Democracy NGO Joins Gov’t Doghouse

The National Democratic Institute became the latest U.S.-affiliated organization to face government allegations of wrongdoing on Wednesday night after its purported secrets spilled onto government-affiliated media.

The Kon Khmer Facebook page claimed the leaked documents showed political collusion between the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the opposition party when it posted them at about 10:30 on Wednesday night, while also implicating The Cambodia Daily, The Phnom Penh Post and U.S.-funded radio stations in an alleged CPP smear campaign.

The Washington-headquartered organization manages USAID’s Cambodia Democratic Reforms program, a four-year, $8.5 million initiative that aims to “improve political competition and government accountability.” It conducted political party debates, public polling and training workshops ahead of June’s commune elections.

“We wish to issue these secret, important documents that clearly show NDI interfered with Cambodia’s internal affairs,” the Kon Khmer leaker wrote. “It’s not only NDI—there are some other NGOs that are behind the opposition party.”

Minutes later, government-affiliated Fresh News copied and pasted the documents and text of the post word-for-word, including the leaker’s call for the Interior Ministry to take action against NDI. The Facebook page, meanwhile, had been deleted by early on Thursday afternoon.

NDI’s country director, John Cavanaugh, wrote in an email on Thursday that the democracy-strengthening organization is “strictly non-partisan and partners with all major political parties,” noting that the ruling party had received training from NDI before the commune elections. He did not comment on the authenticity of the documents.

Huy Vannak, an undersecretary of state at the ministry and head of the government-aligned Union of Journalist Federations of Cambodia, took the leaker’s call to action with gusto, telling the media on Thursday that NDI had failed to register with the ministry. But Mr. Vannak was circumspect on the timing of his announcement or why NDI would have registered with the ministry when the Law on Associations and NGOs (Lango) requires foreign NGOs to register with the Foreign Affairs Ministry.

“We just want to confirm and let the media know,” he said repeatedly, adding that it was too soon to say what action the ministry would take.

Mr. Cavanaugh said NDI submitted its application to the Foreign Affairs Ministry in September. The ministry could not be reached on Thursday.

The leaks follow weeks of similar leak-driven news cycles, with the Daily, Radio Free Asia and Voice of America all named in recent Facebook leaks immediately picked up by Fresh News in relation to alleged unpaid taxes. Rights groups Licadho and Adhoc as well as the Committee for Free and Fair Elections were also summoned for questioning by the tax department last week. All of the organizations aside from the Daily have received direct or indirect funding from the U.S. government in recent years.

The NDI leaks center on alleged notes and slides from a March political party training seminar conducted by NDI, including a roster of attendees that named CNRP President Kem Sokha and his three deputies.

A screenshot of what appears to be a slide from the presentation shows a mock headline (“Cambodia National Rescue Party Wins National Election”) alongside text in English and Khmer.

“I think you can win the next election,” the slide notes say. “Failure to do so will be caused by one of 2 things: CPP cheats [or] CNRP lacks the strategy, discipline, [and] creativity to win. You will decide your own fate.”

Citing anonymous internal opposition sources, the leaker claimed that the CNRP, acting on NDI advice, will begin disseminating rumors five days before next year’s national election—rumors it claims would be fed to “media that often attack the government,” including the Daily, the Post and radio stations connected to the “greatest power countries.”

CNRP lawmaker Mao Monyvann said that it was normal for politicians to talk to journalists and called the March training, which he said he attended, a “normal workshop.” “We just discussed how to build policy and the party strategy,” he said. “Nothing like they claimed.”

But CPP spokesman Sok Eysan claimed that the leak suggested violations of Lango provisions requiring NGOs maintain political neutrality. He declined to confirm whether CPP officials had attended similar trainings.

NDI has had a rocky relationship with the government in the past. Weeks before the 2013 election, NDI director of electoral programs Patrick Merloe told a U.S. House of Representatives sub-committee that Cambodia “remains mired in a corrupt, quasi-authoritarian political system” and noted that NDI’s activities had been restricted in the run-up to that vote. Mr. Cavanaugh said parties, including the CNRP and CPP, received training according to their needs. NDI, he wrote, “is focused on strengthening democratic processes, benefiting candidates and voters alike.”

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