A not-so-fine line exists between foreign support to foster democratization and the direct funding of a single political party. The first type of democracy promotion helps create a level playing field for governing and opposition parties alike; the second undermines democracy by interfering in the process from afar. In Cambodia, the International Republican Institute (IRI) has crossed far over this line in its support of the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP).
Cambodia has three major political parties. In addition to the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, the other leading political parties are the post-communist Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), led by Hun Sen, and the royalist Funcinpec party under Prince Ranariddh. These latter two have uneasily shared power for the past decade. Meanwhile, the nationalistic SRP, named after its leader, has risen in the polls. The most recent elections, in July 2003, saw the CPP win a majority of seats in the National Assembly but less than the two-thirds required by Cambodia’s constitution to form a government. Funcinpec narrowly outpolled the SRP for second place.
On the whole, U.S. policy supported the electoral process in a neutral fashion. The U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh funded long-term election observers in many Cambodian provinces. Several other U.S. government-funded agencies, including the Asia Foundation and the National Democratic Institute (NDI), sponsored nonpartisan debates, distributed voter guides, and funded domestic election monitors. IRI, by contrast, channeled its funding and technical assistance to the SRP, which it refers to as “the democratic opposition.” Rainsy has repeatedly been guest of honor at IRI events in Washington, such as an April 2003 banquet co-hosted by the Heritage Foundation.
In October 2002, IRI channeled a $450,000 grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to start the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), a nongovernmental organization led by a former Funcinpec senator, Kem Sokha. Cambodia already has a number of respected, neutral human rights organizations, but CCHR operates in “partnership” with IRI and provides reporting of rights abuses that are of particular political utility. When CCHR allegations of pre-election violence differed from that of other organizations, for instance, IRI routinely quoted CCHR’s reports. Conveniently, the CCHR expatriate adviser is married to the IRI country director.
IRI’s support for Sam Rainsy is accompanied by its visceral hatred of Prime Minister Hun Sen. This animosity dates back to a 1997 grenade attack on an SRP rally in which 13 Cambodians were killed and an IRI operative, Ron Abney, was injured. Cambodia’s lackadaisical and corrupt judicial system never arrested any suspects, but IRI and Abney say they are “confident” that Hun Sen was himself responsible. IRI statements repeatedly call for further investigation of the attack while leaving no doubt about whom they believe is to blame.
IRI’s vendetta is supported by key Republican leaders in the U.S. Congress, most vehemently by Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who is majority whip and chair of the Senate’s Foreign Operations Subcommittee. McConnell’s chief of staff, Paul Grove, is a former IRI representative in Cambodia and Asia director at IRI in Washington. In one in an extraordinary series of op-ed articles published in 2002 and early 2003, McConnell and Grove wrote, “It is in America’s interests that the opposition win … it is time for the State Department to take sides.” This was followed by calls for “regime change” and attempts to link the “paranoid evil dictator” Hun Sen to the war on terrorism.
In an Asian Wall Street Journal op-ed ( May 20, 2003), McConnell argued directly that “technical and material assistance should be provided to opposition political parties,” of which there is only one of any serious stature. In a May 22, 2003 letter to Senator McConnell, the Sam Rainsy Party-USA stated: “We understand that the political clout your office can bring to bear on the ruling party in times of crisis is paramount to our success. For the partnership forged between SRP and your office, it will play a pivotal role in safeguarding the livelihood of our party.”
On June 26, Sen. McConnell and two colleagues introduced the “Cambodia Democracy and Accountability Act” (S. 1365), which provides for resuming full foreign assistance to Cambodia, provided that elections are “free and fair”–and “that Prime Minister Hun Sen is no longer in power.” In effect, McConnell proposed using $21.5 million of U.S. government aid to reward, if not to buy, a certain election result. The bill was relegated to committee and never acted on. However, the 2004 Consolidated Appropriations Act, (H.R. 2673), contains “up to $4,000,000 … for activities to support democracy [in Cambodia], including assistance for democratic political parties.”
In a July 2003 interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, IRI’s Asia director, Daniel Calingaert said, “We’ve provided some additional assistance to the Sam Rainsy Party because they are at a disadvantage in that they are not in the ruling coalition and don’t have the access to state resources that the other parties have.” Calingaert refused, however, to reveal the exact amount of IRI support for the SRP. On election day in July 2003, SRP activists in rural villages proudly displayed IRI notebooks and T-shirts, leaving no doubt about their funding source.
The IRI election observer delegation was led by Christine Todd Whitman, who had recently stepped down as chief of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). At a post-election press conference, Whitman and IRI’s president, George Fulsom, expressed caution about broad generalizations about the outcome and denied that IRI had partisan favorites. Whitman later admitted that the results were “relatively free of irregularities” with “more open expression of political opinion and lively campaigns.” Nevertheless, they concluded that the elections “did not meet international standards”–a statement that IRI has since used as justification for its partisan political operations in Cambodia and for its condemnations of the Hun Sen government.
Most observers expected that a multiparty coalition similar to the previous one would be formed soon after the election. However, IRI advisers urged both the Sam Rainsy and Funcinpec parties to reject the election results while at the same time calling for Hun Sen’s resignation. The SRP and Funcinpec formed an “Alliance of Democrats” dedicated to removing Hun Sen. On September 10, Sam Rainsy and Prince Norodom Sirivudh (representing Funcinpec) visited Washington and met with Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Mitch McConnell. During the visit, Senator McConnell told the two party chiefs that they could count on “America’s support in ensuring new leadership comes to Cambodia.” Furthermore, McConnell said, “The demand of the Alliance [of Democrats] that Prime Minister Hun Sen step aside is reasonable and realistic,” all the while ignoring the fact that Hun Sen’s party won the election.
Several weeks later, IRI issued its final election assessment, citing “pre-election intimidation and an inequitable political playing field in Cambodia’s failure to meet international standards.” The IRI blamed the entire post-election impasse on the CPP for not acceding to the demand that Hun Sen be removed as prime minister.
IRI’s carefully worded statement assured Sam Rainsy of continued support in blocking the formation of a new government. When an agreement with the Hun Sen government seemed near in November, Rainsy and the Alliance backed out. IRI was reportedly included in Alliance strategy meetings about how to proceed. In late February 2004, IRI hosted Rainsy’s wife, Tioulong Saumura (identified only as “a leading SRP member”), at a luncheon in Washington and arranged for her to meet with senators and the State Department.
In spite of these efforts, the CPP and Funcinpec appear to have reached an understanding in early March to form a new “two-and-a-half party” coalition including several SRP members and with Hun Sen continuing as prime minister. It is reasonable to conclude that without IRI prodding and “technical and material support,” the eight-month political deadlock in Cambodia could have been resolved much sooner. Finally, as the Bush administration increasingly stresses the U.S. commitment to foster a “global democratic revolution,” it is worth considering how the U.S. public would react if a foreign government funded an opposition political party in the United States.
Andrew Wells-Dang is the Indochina representative of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, an independent nonprofit organization supporting normal political, economic, and cultural relations between the U.S. and Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Cuba. He served as an official observer during the 1998 and 2003 Cambodian elections.
For More Information Cambodian Center for Human Rights (IRI-funded):
Fund for Reconciliation & Development reports on 2003 Cambodian election:
IRI country analysis on Cambodia, pre-election and post-election reports:
IRI testimony on Cambodia to Congress (June 2003):
Interview with IRI Asia Director Daniel Calingaert:
In These Times article on IRI in Cambodia (April 2003):