On December 12th, NDI President Ken Wollack testified before the Asia Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee about the recent rollback of democracy in Cambodia. After 25 years of work with all political parties in Cambodia — including the ruling party — NDI was ordered to close its office on August 23, 2017, as part of a broader campaign against civil society, independent media and the political opposition. In his testimony submitted for the record, Wollack said that the closing of NDI’s office was “ironic.”
“The Institute, which had been working in the country since 1992, engaged all the major parties, including the ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP), in its programs,” Wollack said. “In fact, the morning that NDI received the letter ordering the closure of its office and expelling its international staff from the country, the Institute had met with a representative of the ruling party to plan its next training session.”
Wollack pointed out in his testimony that recent actions by Cambodia’s government, including dissolving the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), have effectively transformed Cambodia into a one-party state. On September 4, 2017, Kem Sokha, the leader of the CNRP, was arrested in a midnight raid at his house and charged with treason. Mona Kem, who also testified at the December 12 hearing, is his daughter. Since Kem Sokha’s arrest, almost half of the opposition’s representatives in parliament have fled the country, and their seats have been systematically redistributed to lawmakers loyal to the ruling CPP. Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Asia (RFA) have been shuttered, and The Cambodia Daily, an independent English newspaper operating since 1963, was forced to close. Other political activists have been arrested, and an atmosphere of fear now permeates the country.
According to Wollack, the Cambodian government’s repressive actions are designed to keep the ruling party in control, and Prime Minister Hun Sen has repeatedly said that he wants to continue in office beyond his 32-year grip on power. As Wollack pointed out in his testimony, Cambodia’s political history since the 1991 Paris Peace agreement can be characterized as a period marked by three distinct coups. That agreement — signed by 19 governments, including the U.S. and China — required Cambodia to respect human rights and to follow “a system of liberal democracy on the basis of pluralism.” Wollack pointed out that the first coup occurred when the results of the 1993 elections conducted by the United Nations (UN) were overturned under threats by the ruling CPP. The second occurred in 1997, when Hun Sen violently overthrew his coalition partner and forced the opposition into exile. And the third coup occurred in 2017 when the government disbanded the CNRP, the only opposition party that could effectively challenge them in next year’s national elections.
At the hearing, which ten members of congress attended, there was uniform agreement that the United States must join with its allies to take concrete steps that could lead the Cambodian government to a reversal of its anti-democratic actions. “Despite deep flaws, the 2013 national elections and this year’s communal elections saw gains made by the CNRP... Since that time, we have seen a complete dismemberment of the political system in Cambodia,” said Representative Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Subcommittee Chairman Ted Yoho agreed with Wollack’s assessment that Cambodia’s actions put it more firmly in China’s orbit. “While the international community has widely condemned the shutdown of democracy, China was quick to offer support — blatantly ignoring the provisions of the Paris Peace agreement to which it is a signatory,” said NDI’s President.
Representatives Steve Chabot and Alan Lowenthal, Congressional Cambodia Caucus co-chairs, were also in attendance. “The situation is Cambodia is dire... we are witnessing the death of democracy,” warned Lowenthal.
Subcommittee Ranking Member Brad Sherman pointedly noted that the U.S. has limited dollars to spend on foreign assistance and therefore, it is time to reconsider the foreign direct assistance that the U.S. provides to the government of Cambodia in light of its authoritarian actions.
All of the witnesses agreed that the U.S. must take concrete actions that are carefully calibrated to ensure maximum impact. “Mr. Chairman, it is not too late for the Cambodian government to reverse its course,” Wollack said. “Fresh elections should be held and the people allowed to choose their leaders in a credible electoral process. No Cambodian government elected under the current circumstances would have any claim to legitimacy.”
Mr. Chairman, it is not too late for the Cambodian government to reverse its course. Fresh elections should be held and the people allowed to choose their leaders in a credible electoral process. No Cambodian government elected under the current circumstances would have any claim to legitimacy.
- NDI President Ken Wollack
Wollack indicated the U.S. and the international community should consider the following steps until political conditions in Cambodia show marked improvement. They include:
- Considering suspension of all but humanitarian aid to the Cambodian government until the conditions for democratic elections are met;
- Supporting the work of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) within Cambodia, which are especially vulnerable to government reprisals and need the continued support of the international community to carry on their work;
- Reviewing the possibility of altering the terms of trade with Cambodia since the U.S. is the largest export market for Cambodian goods, receiving 25 percent of Cambodia’s exports, and the European Union (EU) is the next largest;
- Utilizing international pressure and the promise of constructive dialogue similar to the international response to the 1997 coup;
- Supporting exiled political leaders’ efforts to negotiate their return, as was the case following the 1997 coup;
- Engaging with the UN and regional bodies such as ASEAN, as well financial institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
Witness Mona Kem was optimistic that the visa restrictions already imposed by the U.S. government on individuals who have engaged in anti-democratic activity would have an impact. She said that with the right amount of pressure Cambodia can resume its path toward democracy very soon. Following the hearing, the bipartisan Cambodia Caucus introduced a resolution re-affirming the U.S. commitment to democracy in Cambodia that matches the McCain-Durbin resolution adopted by the U.S. Senate in November.
Wollack’s testimony pointed out that the international community and the Cambodian people have invested a great deal to support a stable, democratic and prosperous Cambodia since the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement was signed. At that time, Cambodia was emerging from decades of war, the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime and Vietnamese occupation. The country was economically devastated and the institutions of governance weak or non-existent. According to Wollack, much progress has been made in some areas, largely due to the efforts of the many thousands of Cambodians who have worked to secure the vision of the peace accords and a better future for their country. Over the last two decades, U.S. support in Cambodia has developed a labor framework; helped preserve Cambodia’s cultural heritage leading to a $100 million travel industry; and assisted in strengthening the electoral system, rule of law, political parties, the parliament and civil society. Many of these programs, including those carried out by NDI, have been supported by USAID, the National Endowment for Democracy and the Department of State’s Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.