Supporting democracy or stirring up trouble?

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A security guard outside the shuttered NDI offices. KT/Mai Vireak

Dear sir,

There are times when “hypocrisy” is far too gentle a term to describe US public interventions in other countries’ politics. That is certainly the case in the present teapot tempest over the Cambodia Daily, Radio Free Asia, Voice of America and National Democratic Institute.

For instance, US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert referred to NDI as one of “civil society organisations” carrying out “important activities” to assist Cambodia’s 2018 national elections (as quoted in the Phnom Penh Post). That is not hypocrisy; that is a lie.

NDI has never been part of “civil society”. It was created by the US government, it is funded by the US government and it serves the US government.

If US military forces have not yet shot up a country’s capital, and if the CIA has not yet been exposed handing over bags of money to its politicians, that does not at all indicate US respect for national sovereignty, but only that the US government has a choice of means of interference.

In fact, one reason that the NDI, its parent National Endowment for Democracy and its sibling International Republican Institute were set up was to make it easier to channel US government money to foreign politicians (and military officers) who were beginning to fear that disclosure of CIA funding would discredit them. But once the money was in the clients’ hands, the path by which it got there didn’t matter: it still served the same purpose.

When the US funded a coup against the elected Venezuelan government in 2002, the money was funnelled through USAID, NED, IRI, NDI (although some reports said that NDI was not greatly involved specifically in the coup), and probably the CIA and other organisations we will never be told about. The precise channel was of no importance.

Part of the effort to create an illusion that government fronts like NDI are part of “civil society” involves having them provide seminars or training or travel to a range of politicians of different parties. (Of course, the CIA has often offered support to both sides in political disputes over the years; that is one way the US seeks to ensure it has influence with the winner, whatever happens.)

But even these “impartial” or “non-partisan” projects frequently reveal themselves as having a clear partisan bias. For example, after the 2013 Cambodian election, when the CNRP was claiming that it had “really” won the election despite its inability to provide any evidence for the claim, NDI put together a group of 20 local NGOs under the title of Electoral Reform Alliance (ERA), to find arguments or evidence with which to discredit the election result.

The eventual result was a large, glossy, multi-coloured report, full of graphs and tables but almost totally lacking in logic, understanding of elementary ideas and even consistency. (For a detailed criticism, see https://letters2pppapers.files.wordpress.com/2014/02/era-reply-pamphlet_final1.pdf.) The ERA publication was funded by USAID.

Weeks before the ERA report appeared, Laura Thornton, then the local director of NDI, was bubbling over to the Cambodia Daily about what NDI hoped to accomplish. She said the report “will tap into some of the unhappiness over the election results and actually create a grassroots demand for reform…From our viewpoint, we are talking about a complete overhaul: rewriting election laws, revamping the NEC [National Election Committee].”

What a programme: Stir up a movement of the unhappy losers to convince them that they really were cheated, so they will demand that the election laws be rewritten by NDI! And of course that would all be done in an impartial and non-partisan manner.

The fact that its officials are sometimes phantasists should not make us imagine that NDI is any the less dangerous. Its board of directors and senior advisers are loaded with influential former politicians and representatives of big wealth. This is epitomised by its chairman (sic) of many years,  former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, whose humanitarian credentials include having publicly defended participating in the murder of half a million Iraqi children.

(Despite – or maybe because of – the reality, NDI never lacks for defenders in the media. A particularly grotesque example is the online Guardian newspaper’s reporting of the current dispute, which describes NDI as a “charity”!)

Regardless of whether NDI has or has not registered properly, Cambodia will be better off without it.

And the same people who swear that NDI is part of “civil society” assert, usually in the same breath, that the Cambodian government’s attempts to make RFA, VOA and the Cambodia Daily follow the same regulations and pay the same taxes as other organisations are an “attack on independent media”.

RFA was set up in the 1950s by a CIA front. RFA claims that CIA control ended in 1971, but how are we to know? – it didn’t acknowledge its CIA connections before 1971. In any case, RFA is still funded and therefore controlled by the same people – the US government – who fund and run the CIA; as with the NDI, exactly which channels the funds flow through doesn’t matter very much.

VOA, under a few different names, has been a mouthpiece for the US government since World War II, and has never been anything else. All of its hundreds of journalists and correspondents are either US government employees or paid contractors.

Not surprisingly, the two stations display a similar editorial outlook, regarding Cambodia as well as other places. Regarding Cambodia, their attitude could be described as, “If something good happens, it isn’t news”. (For a more detailed analysis of RFA and Cambodia, see https://letters2pppapers.wordpress.com/archives/2016-2/how-radio-free-asia-tries-to-dupe-cambodians/.)

As far as I know, the Cambodia Daily is the only one of the “threatened” organisations that is in reality independent; that is, it is dependent, not on the US government, but on its founder, Bernard Krisher, and his daughter Deborah Krisher-Steele.

However, independence is not a licence to evade taxes. Other newspapers in Cambodia pay taxes, and no one has yet put forward a persuasive reason for exempting the Daily.

When it was founded in 1993, the Daily was set up as a non-government organisation, supposedly to train Cambodians as journalists. Even at the time, many on the scene suspected such training was mainly a pretext for asking for free reprint rights from major international papers and news networks. In any case, the Daily abandoned its claimed NGO status many years ago, so that is irrelevant to its current $6.3 million tax debt.

Krisher responded publicly to the tax bill by saying he didn’t owe any tax, because he had given large amounts of money – $39 million – for the construction of hundreds of schools in Cambodia.

There is no way that outsiders can verify that figure – which is one reason that governments generally do not simply accept individuals’ or businesses’ declarations as to their charitable deductions, especially long after the fact.

But even if the figure were proven, that hardly settles the matter. Businesses give money to worthy causes not only because their owners are overflowing with humanitarian feeling. Such donations also create good will for the business; in effect, they are a form of advertising.

And it is up to governments, not individual taxpayers, to decide on the spending of its income or potential income. Even if a charitable donation is in an area prioritised by the government (education, for example), the government might prefer to devote available funds to a different field within that area (for example, teachers’ salaries rather than school buildings).

For these and similar reasons, governments normally designate charitable organisations to which donations are tax deductible, and they specify limits and/or conditions on deductions. Certainly the United States, of which Krisher is a citizen and which is currently rallying to defend him against Cambodian taxes, does not allow individuals to decide unilaterally after the fact that some or all of their expenditures should count as tax payments. Krisher should just pay his taxes “the American way” and stop whining about it.

The facts make it clear that what the US is defending is not democracy, but its own “right” to meddle in Cambodian affairs.

Allen Myers,

Phnom Penh.

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