U.S. lawmakers have criticized Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government over a campaign targeting a U.S.-funded democracy promotion group and several media outlets.
The National Democratic Institute (NDI) has been ordered to close for allegedly violating the law on NGOs, while the Cambodia Daily newspaper also faces closure over an apparent unpaid tax bill.
Other media outlets, including VOA, have also been handed bills for alleged back taxes.
Critics of the move say Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party is seeking to silence dissent ahead of a crucial general election next year.
U.S. Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement that he was “concerned and disappointed” by the decision to close the NDI.
“NDI is committed to the rule of law and fostering democracy around the world and they do valuable and important work in Cambodia to ensure the integrity of the electoral process,” he said.
“This is just the latest action in the government’s campaign to silence proponents of democracy, harass civil society, and restrict the media in an effort to inhibit a free and open process in national elections scheduled for next year.
“By expelling the NDI staff, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is only demonstrating that he is afraid of open society and debate and that he is willing to use authoritarian tactics to suppress them,” he added.
“The Trump administration must send a strong message that the United States is committed to promoting democracy, human rights, and rule of law in Cambodia and throughout the world.”
Separately, in a joint statement also on Friday, Congressmen Alan Lowenthal and Steve Chabot, co-chairs of the Congressional Cambodia Caucus,
“The recent expulsion of the non-profit National Democratic Institute is only one more offense in a long series of efforts by the Hun Sen government specifically targeted at groups dedicated to free speech and transparency,” they said.
“Radio stations, NGOs, newspapers, and independent news outlets such as Radio Free Asia and the Voice of America, have all fallen into the Hun Sen regime’s crosshairs. This pattern of constitutional abuse by the Cambodian government, while not new, is deeply worrisome as the nation moves into the 2018 general elections.”
The NDI responded to the government decision, saying it was “surprised and saddened” by the decision.
"For 25 years in Cambodia, NDI has worked with all major political parties, including the ruling party. We have been transparent in our work, and have made every attempt to comply with the law. It is our sincere hope the Cambodian government will review its decision," said Kenneth Wollack, NDI president.
“NDI’s efforts help strengthen democratic processes and institutions and not a particular electoral outcome,” he said, adding that NDI had fulfilled its legal obligations by submitting registration papers in September 2016.
The group was told to cease operations because it had continued to carry out its work despite not being granted official NGO registration since it applied.
Meanwhile, the Cambodia Daily, an English-language local newspaper, was told earlier this week that it had until September 4 to pay $6 million allegedly owes in back taxes, a figure the paper’s management disputes.