Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who makes a visit to Phnom Penh this weekend, should leverage his country’s aid to pressure the Cambodian government to launch an independent probe into fraud and other irregularities in disputed elections, a rights group said Thursday.
As head of the leading international donor to Cambodia, Abe is obligated to speak out on “difficult issues,” such as the need for a probe into voting irregularities and addressing alleged human rights abuses, during his Nov. 16-17 visit, New York-based Human Rights Watch said.
In an open letter to Abe, the rights group urged Japan to join other countries “in publicly calling for an independent, internationally assisted investigation into election irregularities” and to “discuss the modalities for such an investigation.”
It also asked Japan to show impartiality by meeting with leaders of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) who have boycotted parliament in protest against Prime Minister Hun Sen’s refusal to set up a probe into election irregularities.
The letter referred to a policy speech Abe delivered in January proclaiming Japan’s intention to pursue international “diplomacy based on the fundamental values of freedom, democracy, basic human rights, and the rule of law.”
“We urge you to demonstrate your commitment to this policy by making these values a cornerstone of your discussions with Hun Sen and Japan’s relations with Cambodia, a country in which Japan has historically played a very important role,” the letter said.
“Your upcoming visit is an opportunity for Japan to turn your January speech into reality by making the promotion of human rights and democracy a top priority in relations with Cambodia.”
Cambodia’s July 28 national elections were tainted with allegations of irregularities that have left the country in political deadlock after the CNRP and its supporters refused to accept official results declaring Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) the victor.
Human Rights Watch Asia director Brad Adams told RFA’s Khmer Service that Abe “should not avoid difficult issues” during his visit, “which the Japanese government often does.”
He said it was not enough for Tokyo to call for the ruling and opposition parties to reach an agreement and to engage in national reconciliation, which he said reflected the tendency for Japanese foreign policy “usually to keep quiet.”
“I think that they’ve given enough money and support to the Cambodian government over the years that they have the right to speak out and, ultimately, on behalf of the Cambodian people they have the obligation to speak out,” Adams said.
“They can’t be taken seriously if they just sit quietly on the sidelines at important times like these.”
Japan has been the leading donor to Cambodia since the 1991 U.N.-brokered Paris Peace Accords, which laid out a process ending decades of internal conflict in the country and which also emphasized building a democratic society anchored in human rights and the rule of law.
Between 1992 and 2012, Japan provided Cambodia with U.S. $2.25 billion in overseas development assistance and is currently disbursing an average of some U.S. $120 million annually in such assistance, it said.
“Japan has been the leading bilateral donor … but has refrained from speaking out when elections have been tainted and the government has committed serious human rights abuses,” said Kanae Doi, Japan director at Human Rights Watch.
“Failure to speak out now would undermine the right of millions of Cambodians to choose their own government through free and fair elections.”
Human Rights Watch also called on Abe to pressure Hun Sen to ensure that security assistance and overseas development aid promote and protect human rights, and that an ongoing U.N.-backed Khmer Rouge war tribunal delivers justice to the Cambodian people.
Ruling party reaction
Chheang Von, a senior CPP official and chairman of the Cambodian parliament’s foreign affairs committee, dismissed the letter and said that the Japanese government “will not listen” to Human Rights Watch’s demands.
He said that Cambodia’s government was “moving forward” and “can’t go back to investigate the election,” adding that the results had already been endorsed by the country’s King Norodom Sihamoni.
“We are already at this stage—we can’t listen to Human Rights Watch,” he said.
“Between the King and Human Rights Watch, which [order] is higher?”
Following the announcement of the official election results, the CNRP refused to take its seats in the National Assembly, the country’s parliament, but the CPP unilaterally convened the legislature, reappointed Hun Sen as premier, and set up all the parliamentary commissions comprising its own members.
The CNRP said the CPP moves took Cambodia “back to a one-party system of governance.”
Hun Sen, who is into his 28th year in power, defended the formation of parliament as legal and has rejected claims of election irregularities.
Talks break down
Talks between the CNRP and CPP aimed at breaking the political deadlock last week resulted in little progress when the ruling party refused to discuss the possibility of an investigation into the allegations of poll fraud.
CNRP spokesman Nhem Ponharith told RFA on Wednesday that his party wants to renew talks with the CPP, though no schedule has been set for a new round of meetings.
“We hope to hold peaceful talks to resolve the political deadlock,” he said.
“We are seeking all possibilities to find a way out, and this can only be resolved through political negotiations.”
On Thursday, Chheang Von blamed the CNRP for causing the long delay in talks.
“The CNRP is the party which walked out [of last week’s talks],” he said, adding that “there is no deadlock” as Hun Sen’s government and the National Assembly are “moving forward.”
Reported by Samean Yun for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.