PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA - The European Union in Cambodia on Tuesday said it was suspending planned funding of Cambodia's national election body.
The United States last month said it would suspend its funding of the National Election Committee (NEC) and also imposed visa restrictions on officials over the dissolution of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and the arrest of its leader, Kem Sokha, who has been charged with treason.
In a statement, the EU said the CNRP's dissolution meant the government could not organize a legitimate election in 2018 as planned. The EU previously announced $8 million of funding for next year's general election.
"The decision to dissolve the CNRP, and the subsequent reallocation of its National Assembly and commune/Sangkat council seats to other parties, denies the choice of those who voted for the party in the elections in 2013 and 2017," it said.
"An electoral process from which the main opposition party has been arbitrarily excluded cannot be seen as legitimate," the statement said.
Phay Siphan, a government spokesman, said the EU was "interfering in Cambodian affairs" and making an "attack on an independent body."
Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge officer who has been in power for more than three decades, said in November that foreign recognition of the 2018 election was not necessary for it to be legitimate. His ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) dominates government administration, the military and the judiciary.
After the dissolution of the CNRP, Cambodia is effectively a one-party state, which critics say could mean the end of a $1.6 billion U.N.-backed effort to seed democracy that began in 1992.
The EU said high voter turnout in local elections earlier this year was evidence that people were growing more confident in the electoral system. The CNRP won about 43 percent of the popular vote in the commune elections.
Despite the withdrawal of EU funding, NEC officials said the move would not affect the NEC's ability to hold an election, as it had lined up funding from the government and other donors, including China.
Som Sorida, NEC deputy secretary-general, said the NEC had set aside about $52 million for the 2018 election.
However, he added that the NEC was disappointed by the loss of a partner.
"The participation from more partners will show more transparency of the NEC in the electoral process," he said.
He added that Japan was providing $7 million toward election costs, while China, South Korea and Russia were also making contributions.
Hironori Suzuki, counselor of the Japanese Embassy in Cambodia, said in an email: "It is of utmost importance to have next year's national election reflect the will of the Cambodian people. Japan will keep dialogue with the royal government of Cambodia, will monitor the development of the situation closely with strong interest, and will continue to provide electoral reform assistance."
China gives the most
Hang Puthea, NEC spokesman, said China was the largest single donor, providing about $12 million.
The increasing tensions with the EU and the U.S. come as Cambodia is becoming close to Beijing, which is offering political and economic support to Hun Sen.
On November 17, after the U.S. announced it was ending funding for the vote scheduled for July 29, 2018, the pro-government Fresh News website reported that Hun Sen said in a speech to garment workers that he welcomed the cut in U.S. aid, and urged Washington to cut all assistance.
Although U.S. assistance to Cambodia for health, education, governance, economic development and clearing unexploded ordnance was worth more than $77.6 million in 2014, China is now Cambodia's biggest donor and lender.
According to The Economist, Chinese firms sent nearly $5 billion to Cambodia in loans and investments between 2011 and 2015, which accounts for about 70 percent of total industrial development.
This report originated on VOA Khmer.