Japan goes shy on Khmer poll flaws
Cambodia’s general election on July 29 concluded with a sharp controversy. Skeptical voter turnout, a number of spoilt ballots, election boycotts and a sweeping victory by the ruling Cambodian People Party (CPP) appeared in international media headlines. Shortly after the National Election Committee (NEC) announced the preliminary result, the US, the European Union, the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Germany expressed concern that the election was neither free nor fair and failed to justify the spirit of democracy in the absence of the banned opposition party, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP).
As Western countries quickly condemned the flawed election, and the US even explicitly said it would consider further sanctions, it took Japan — one of the most prominent democratic countries in Asia and a key donor of Cambodia — almost a week to break its silence.
Japan’s Foreign Minister Taro Kono expressed his concerns over the nature of the election in Cambodia when meeting his Cambodian counterpart Prak Sokhon on Aug 4 in Singapore. Even though Japan finally said something, the lateness of Japan’s reaction constitutes its reluctant diplomacy. It seems that Japan might not want to move, but circumstances might have forced Japan to do so.
Japan has played a critical role i n Cambodia’s peace, democracy, human rights and development, but Japan’s current diplomatic position on Cambodia became suspiciously forgiving in the eyes of international community. Japan continues engaging and supporting the NEC even after the Cambodian government arrested the CNRP leader Kem Sokha and the Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP and barred 118 former CNRP politicians from politics in November 2017.
Japan’s ongoing support for the election sparked a string of protests by Cambodians living abroad weeks ahead of the poll event, all with one voice: Tokyo should stop supporting such a problematic election.
But Japan still firmly defended its position, at least for a while.
The tide of Japan’s diplomacy turned after Mitsuko Shino, Ambassador of the Permanent Mission of Japan to the UN, expressed grave concerns over the situation of human rights, democracy and the election in Cambodia during the 38th Session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland on July 5.
Ambassador Shino said: “Japan is concerned that Cambodia’s biggest opposition party has been dissolved and there has been a negative influence on the activities of opposition parties and civil society amid the rise of political tensions prior to the upcoming national election.”
He added: “In order to resolve these issues, Japan believes it is important for all stakeholders, including the ruling party as well as opposition parties, to take disciplinary action and promote dialogue among the Cambodian people. The government of Japan therefore requests that all sides do their utmost to resolve the current situation.”
It appears that the waves of protests by Cambodians living abroad to hold Japan responsible for the death of democracy in Cambodia have gained momentum. Just a few days before the ballot casting, the Japanese government finally announced that Japan would not send any observer to monitor the election.
It was the first time since 1993 that Japan decided not to send its observers to monitor a poll event in the Southeast Asian country. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yoshidide Suga, told the media: “In order to ensure the trust of the electoral process, we have sent experts and provided machines and technical assistance. We have supported election reform in this way.”
Although Mr Suga tried to downplay the decision made by his government, Japan’s lastminute withdrawal of political support brought the credibility and legitimacy of the election into question. As an official from the Japanese Foreign Ministry told Reuters, Japan’s decision was motivated by the rising controversy surrounding the Cambodian election.
Yet the diplomatic position of Japan was once again brought into the spotlight when Japan remained quiet after the conclusion of the July 29 election. As a prominent democratic state, Japan is expected to play an important role in Cambodia’s peace process, development, democratisation and free and fair elections. Japan has donated more than US$2.5 billion of its Official Development Aid (ODA) to Cambodia since 1992.
According to the Council for Development of Cambodia (CDC), Japan ranks as the third largest foreign investor in Cambodia. In an effort to promote justice and human rights, Japan has donated millions of dollars to support the Khmer Rouge tribunal.
As of 2017, according to Neth Peaktra, a spokesman of the Khmer Rouge tribunal, Japan has donated no less than 31% of the total budget of the tribunal making it the largest donor. Japan and the EU played a vital role in reforming the NEC to assure free and fair elections.
Regarding Japan’s late decision to speak out against the flawed election, Kanae Doi, head of Human Rights Watch of Japan, argued that “Japan could still do more”. It is challenging to find any country in Asia that is more democratic than Japan. It could have leveraged its uniqueness as an Asian democracy to promote democratisation in Asia, including Cambodia.
It is understandable that Japan has broad economic, political and security interests in Southeast Asia. However, as a member of the international community spearheading the promotion of democracy, freedom, rule of law, social justice, and free and fair elections, Japan also faces a serious diplomatic cost by acting based on economic and political pragmatism and passively taking such universal values for granted.
As Tom Le, an Assistant Professor of Politics at Pomona College, argued in an article published by Foreign Affairs in 2017, “The Price of Abe’s Pragmatism” is the loss of “Japan’s moral standing”. Japan’s reluctant diplomacy will only weaken Japan’s foreign policy in the eyes of international community, unless it steps up to take a more forceful position.