Japan will continue to provide electoral aid to Cambodia in the lead up to Senate elections next month and a general ballot in July, a Japanese diplomat in Phnom Penh said Thursday, despite recent announcements by the U.S. and EU that they will withdraw their support amid restrictions on democracy.
Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government arrested opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) chief Kem Sokha in September on charges of “treason,” and two months later the Supreme Court ruled to disband his party for allegedly planning a “rebellion” with backing from Washington, essentially eliminating any challenge to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) ahead of votes this year.
In recent statements, the U.S. and EU said the moves against the opposition—as well as a months-long crackdown on NGOs and the media—had called the legitimacy of Cambodia’s upcoming elections into question, and cited them as the basis for withdrawing electoral support and placing trade agreements with Cambodia under review.
But Japan, which along with the EU is the largest funder of Cambodia’s 2018 elections, told RFA’s Khmer Service Thursday that it has no intention to pull its electoral aid ahead of the votes.
“It is of utmost importance to have [this] year's national election reflect the will of Cambodian people,” Kaori Tanabe, first secretary of Japan’s embassy in Phnom Penh, said in an email.
“Japan will keep dialogue with RGC [the Royal Government of Cambodia], will monitor the development of the situation closely with strong interest, and will continue to provide electoral reform assistance.”
Japan has already provided Cambodia’s National Election Commission (NEC) with computers to assist with the ballots and has faced criticism of its continued support from observers, such as New York-based Human Rights Watch.
The world’s fourth largest foreign aid donor with an annual budget of nearly U.S. $10 billion, Japan donated 17.3 billion yen (U.S. $153 million) in loans, 8 billion yen (U.S. $71 million) in grants, and 3.4 billion yen (U.S. $30 million) in technical cooperation to Cambodia in 2015.
In addition to electoral support, Japan also provides Cambodia with a variety of aid for projects including infrastructure improvement, humanitarian assistance, and business development.
Hun Sen has repeatedly stressed that his country does not need foreign governments to fund its elections, or international recognition of their legitimacy, saying acceptance by Cambodians is sufficient.
He has also said that he will continue to welcome aid from China, which is poised to overtake the U.S. as the world’s top foreign donor, and which is currently Cambodia’s largest international aid provider.
China typically offers aid to countries without many of the prerequisites that the U.S. and EU place on donations, such as improvements to human rights.
President of Cambodian rights group Adhoc Thun Saray told RFA Thursday that Japan’s reluctance to tie electoral support to a reversal of the ongoing political crackdown is likely part of a bid to shore up its waning influence in Cambodia, as Hun Sen improves ties with China.
“Japan used to have much influence in Cambodia in the early 1990s, but that is no longer the case, thanks to recently strengthened Cambodia-China relations,” he said.
Satisfying the Cambodian people
Also on Thursday, Chinese vice foreign minister Kong Xuanyou told a briefing in Beijing that China believes upcoming elections in the Southeast Asian nation will be free and fair.
“China respects and supports the development path chosen by the Cambodian people, and believes Cambodia’s future election can, under all sides’ supervision, reflect its fairness and select a party and leader that satisfies the Cambodian people,” Reuters news agency reported, quoting Kong ahead of a Jan. 10-11 visit by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to Cambodia, to attend a regional forum.
Kong said China had offered Cambodia election support, but did not specify what kind. Cambodia has said China will provide various equipment for the July election, including ballot boxes and booths.
According to the vice foreign minister—in addition to being its largest source of international aid—China is also Cambodia’s largest source of foreign investment, its largest trade partner, and its largest source of foreign tourists.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.