Ja­pan goes shy on Kh­mer poll flaws

Bangkok Post - - OPINION - SEK SOPHAL Sek Sophal is a re­searcher at the Democ­racy Pro­mo­tion Cen­tre, Rit­sumeikan Asia Pa­cific Univer­sity, Ja­pan. He is also a writer for the ‘Bangkok Post’.

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.

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