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Observers in Cambodia are worried the International Republican Institute’s funding of a new human rights group here, coupled with the Republican takeover of Congress last fall, is a bad omen for U.S.-Cambodia relations. The IRI is a private group with U.S. funding; it sprang from the Reagan era in order to foster “democracy” with different U.S.-funded projects in poor countries around the world.
The issue hit home early last November, when a former Cambodian Senator, Kem Sokha, opened the Cambodian Center for Human Rights on the strength of a $450,000 grant from the IRI. Sokha is a member of the Royalist party, which has been in coalition with Cambodia’s ruling Peoples Party since 1998.
Although the IRI has been in Cambodia for more than a decade, the grant marks the first time it has stepped so openly into Cambodia’s seamy politics. The IRI has provided a full-time adviser for the new group while working to get a broadcasting license for it, and has hinted that the grant is merely the beginning.
That’s why many in Cambodia are nervous. The day after the new center opened, National Assembly President Prince Norodom Ranariddh blasted the Institute, claiming it was a tool of Cambodia’s demagogic opposition leader, Sam Rainsy, and that it was trying to overthrow Cambodia’s elected government.
The IRI, which is funded by the U.S. government through a Cold War-era fund calling itself the National Endowment for Democracy, denies the timing of the grant is anything more than coincidence. Officials say they are merely trying to build democracy. “We’ve all got the same goals. It’s something we very much believe in,” IRI spokeswoman Johanna Kao says. “I don’t know why the Cambodian government wouldn’t want something like this.”
That’s not enough for many in Cambodia. Even some in the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh, have been alarmed at the GOP’s attitude toward this country, which favors Rainsy over elected officials. Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, who now chairs the Foreign Operations Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is a leading figure in this behind-the-scenes squabbling. A sworn foe of Cambodia’s actual Prime Minister, Hun Sen, McConnell publicly called for “regime change” in Cambodia twice last year. (The second time, in an open letter to Sam Rainsy, he toned down his words, saying the “regime change” ought to come through the polls; the switch didn’t calm any nerves.) Although McConnell is not formally tied to the IRI, he did send Kem Sokha a letter of congratulations on Appropriations Committee stationery—not a very subtle message to send in a country that depends on foreign aid for close to half of its annual budget.
Cambodia’s historically corrupt government has been the special obsession of McConnell and the IRI ever since 1997, when thugs tossed a live grenade into a Sam Rainsy Party rally in Phnom Penh. Among the wounded was then IRI Mission Director Ron Abney. The FBI has fingered soldiers loyal to Hun Sen for the attack.
The National Democratic Institute, which is informally tied to the Democrats, has also been in Cambodia for years. For the past few months, in fact, NDI staffers have been gearing up for Cambodia’s elections by holding “workshops” for both the Sam Rainsy and royalist parties, where they teach such skills as organizing get-out-the-vote drives and media spin.
But NDI, its staffers say, is careful to offer their “consulting” services to all of Cambodia’s parties. “We’re guests. We’re not trying to undermine the sovereignty of anybody,” says NDI Program Manager Dominic Cardy.
The IRI can’t say that. On April 12, 2002, Venezuela’s popularly elected President Hugo Chavez was almost overthrown in a coup d’etat that killed at least 18. Several in the junta’s crowd had ties to the National Endowment for Democracy, the IRI, or both.
The coup was just a few hours old when IRI President George Folsom issued a news release calling the coup the moment in which “the Venezuelan people rose up to defend democracy” and boasting of the IRI’s role “as a bridge between the nation’s political parties and all civil society groups” in the coup.
Within hours of that message, the coup had collapsed, Chavez was back in office and Folsom, the IRI and the U.S. government were in ragged humiliation.
The IRI’s promises that the Venezuela mess was another time and place have not eased the Cambodian government’s nerves. That McConnell’s ravings are isolated and all but meaningless in a Washington with its official mind on Iraq is no consolation to most Cambodians; they remember all too well the last time their country was a sideshow to U.S. policy. Back then, it was Kissinger and Nixon fomenting regime change: Cambodians still haven’t recovered.
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