Japanese Diplomats Clarify Their Expectations for Cambodia

As Prime Minister Hun Sen was hosting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at a banquet at the Peace Palace on Saturday evening, a corps of Japanese diplomats sat down for a dinner with journalists at the Hotel le Royal in Phnom Penh to brief them on the state of relations between the two countries.

While Mr. Abe issued a joint statement with Mr. Hun Sen expressing optimism about “further broadening the bilateral relationship” with Cambodia, the Japanese diplomats expressed a more critical assessment of what Japan, which has donated more than $2.25 billion in development aid to Cambodia since 1992, expects from Mr. Hun Sen’s government.

During a two-hour conversation, officials from the Japanese prime minister’s office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that Tokyo would like to see the administration of Mr. Hun Sen show greater unity with other Asean countries, enhance its efforts to promote human rights and democracy and fulfill its obligation to fund the national side of the Khmer Rouge tribunal.

Tomohiko Taniguchi, Cabinet councilor and a speechwriter for Mr. Abe, said that Japan hoped to encourage the Cambodian government to make progress in areas such as democracy, rule of law and the protection of human rights.

“What we are doing is to creatively incentivize governments that seem to be back-pedaling. That is what Japan is doing vis-a-vis Cambodia,” Mr. Taniguchi said.

Asked in what ways Mr. Hun Sen’s government is back-pedaling, Mr. Taniguchi said that he had not intended to imply that Cambodia was among the countries whose governments are moving backward.

Mr. Tanaguchi added that human rights groups in Japan had lobbied Mr. Abe not to meet with Mr. Hun Sen, and said that Japan’s spending on foreign assistance, particularly to governments with questionable track records in financial management, was under increasing scrutiny.

“The Japanese government itself has to be accountable to its own nationals. If you are to give your taxpayer money to corrupt governments, you have to [be] accountable for that. The Japanese government is under…scrutiny by its people,” he said.

“There are groups telling us not to visit Cambodia,” he added.

As Japan’s dispute with China over the Senkaku islands, called the Diaoyu Islands by China, has become increasingly heated, Foreign Ministry press secretary Kuni Sato said that Mr. Abe had floated the idea to Mr. Hun Sen that Cambodia join the Asean bloc in negotiating member states’ own territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea.

“Prime Minister Abe was polite enough not to say specifically ‘this has to be this way or the other way,’ but he was putting this thought to the table,” she said, referring to Japan’s desire for Asean countries to join forces in their negotiations with China.

Since Cambodia lobbied to keep the South China Sea issue off the agenda as host of the Asean Summit last year, Mr. Hun Sen’s government has been criticized by its regional neighbors for supporting China’s position that territorial disputes should be settled bilaterally, rather than through an “international” dialogue, as countries including Vietnam and the Philippines are demanding.

As the largest donor to the international side of the Khmer Rouge tribunal, Ms. Sato said that Japan was prepared to continue to fund the court as it pursues cases beyond the first mini-trial in Case 002.

However, Japan expected Cambodia’s government to make a similar commitment to financing the national side of the court, added Yoshihiro Abe, second secretary at the Japanese Embassy in Phnom Penh.

“Cambodia’s government was supposed to pay national salaries. We expect the Cambodian side to pay in a smooth manner what they are expected to pay,” he said.

Regarding two decades of efforts by Japan to promote democracy and rule of law in Cambodia, Mr. Tanaguchi said, “Japan has learned…you need to be an extremely long-termist.” He added that rapid changes in other countries in the region, including Burma and Singapore, left Japan optimistic about the likelihood of significant reforms in Cambodia.

Asked if he thought Cambodia had become more democratic since 1993, when relative peace was restored to the country and the U.N. sponsored free elections, Mr. Tanaguchi demurred.

“My answer would hit national headlines, so I will not say anything,” he said.

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