US-Based Cambodia Opposition Supporters Protest Japan’s Support of Upcoming Elections

They demand that Tokyo withdraw aid and refuse to recognize the results of the ballot.

CNRP supporters hold a rally in front of the Japanese Consulate in New York City, June 1, 2018.

Supporters of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) held a protest in front of Japan’s consulate in New York City on Friday, demanding that Tokyo withdraw aid for Cambodia’s upcoming general election after their party was banned and prohibited from participating in the vote.

Nearly 200 Cambodian-American supporters of the CNRP—which was dissolved in November over an alleged plot to topple the government—converged on the consulate from various parts of the U.S., urging Japan to end its support for the July 29 election until Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen “reinstates democracy” in the country and allows their party to register for the ballot.

Meas Chea, a CNRP activist from Philadelphia, told RFA’s Khmer Service that Japan should follow the lead of the U.S. and the European Union in cutting off aid to Cambodia’s National Election Committee (NEC)—the country’s top electoral body—and refuse to recognize what he said will be a sham ballot.

“We protestors request that Japan, one of the 18 signatories to the [1991] Paris Peace Accord, as well as the international community, intervene [in Cambodia’s political standoff] to help allow the CNRP to join the coming July 29 election, because the CNRP represents half of the population in Cambodia,” he said.

“Without the CNRP, the election will be a joke.”

In addition to their demands that it end support and recognition of Cambodia’s election, protesters on Friday also called on Japan’s government to “ban those people who undermine the democratic process and respect for human rights” from entering the country.

The CNRP received more than 3 million votes—accounting for nearly half of the country’s registered voters—in Cambodia’s 2013 general election, and enjoyed similar success in last year’s commune ballot, making it the only legitimate challenger to Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) ahead of July.

The Paris Peace Agreements ended war between Vietnam and Cambodia in 1991 and led to the U.N.’s administration of Cambodia’s government while the country transitioned to a system of democratic elections. According to the terms of the accord, signatories are obligated to “undertake appropriate consultations” with members of the Paris Conference “in the event of the agreements being violated.”

The dissolution of the CNRP and the arrest of its president Kem Sokha two months earlier are actions widely seen as part of a bid by Hun Sen to ensure that the CPP stays in power in Cambodia following July’s vote. Hun Sen marks 33 years in office this year.

Amid the prime minister’s crackdown on the political opposition, both the U.S. and EU have withdrawn donor support for Cambodia’s elections, citing government actions seen as limiting democracy in the country.

But Japan, which along with the EU is the largest funder of Cambodia’s 2018 elections, has said it has no intention to pull its electoral aid ahead of the July vote.

In March, Hironori Suzuki, a counselor with the Embassy of Japan in Phnom Penh, told RFA that while Tokyo had been conveying its concerns to Hun Sen’s government, given the escalation of political tension in Cambodia, “it is of utmost importance to have the national election scheduled in July reflect the will of Cambodian people properly.”

Cambodia’s government has repeatedly ruled out negotiations with the CNRP, however, and the party was not allowed to apply to participate in the election during last month’s registration period.

On Friday, Japan-based CNRP supporter Hay Vanna told RFA that at least 100 Cambodian residents of Japan will hold another protest in Tokyo on June 17, urging the Japanese government to end its support for the upcoming ballot.

“What we want to see is the Japanese government working with the Cambodian government to bring back normalcy to Cambodia,” he said in an interview via Skype, adding that “the people of Japan place the highest priority on their national interests, so we Khmer need to do that as well.”

“We are asking Japan to immediately cease its support for the NEC. We want Japan to neither recognize the election process nor its result. If our demands are not met, we will continue protesting even after the election is over.”

CNRP supporters hold signs the decline of democracy in Cambodia, in New York City, June 1, 2018. Credit: RFA
Waning influence

Japan has already provided Cambodia’s NEC with computers to assist with its ballots and has faced criticism of its continued support from the NGO community, 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.

In January, president of Cambodian rights group Adhoc Thun Saray told RFA 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 at the time.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.