Japanese Prime Minister Agrees to Help With Electoral Reform

During his visit to Phnom Penh over the weekend, the first by a Japanese leader in 13 years, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Japan had agreed to a request by Prime Minister Hun Sen to help Cambodia reform its electoral system, while also pledging to strengthen ties in a number of areas, including health, security, investment and infrastructure.

Prior to Mr. Abe’s visit, Human Rights Watch published a letter calling for him to use his influence to push Mr. Hun Sen into resolving the political impasse that has followed the disputed July 28 national election—which the opposition claims was marred by fraud.

At a press conference at the Peace Palace on Saturday, Mr. Hun Sen said he had requested Japan’s assistance with electoral reform and asked Mr. Abe to consider sending technical experts to take part in the process.

“[Japan] is the first country that Cambodia has requested help from, because we understand that Japan is a mature democratic country that has rich experience in dealing with electoral issues,” Mr. Hun Sen said.

In a joint statement released shortly afterward, Japan said it was willing to assist in the reform process.

“Prime Minister Abe expressed his expectation that the postelection situation would be normalized expeditiously through dialogue and cooperation among the parties concerned,” it reads.

At a press dinner on Saturday evening at the Hotel Le Royal, Tomohiko Taniguchi, a councilor in Mr. Abe’s Cabinet, said that Japan would likely dispatch electoral specialists.

“Chances are, you will see plural experts coming to Cambodia,” he said.

Mr. Abe also visited the Japanese-funded National Maternal and Child Health Center, the country’s largest maternity hospital, and announced a Japanese project to build a new high-tech emergency hospital in Phnom Penh with a projected opening date of 2015. The hospital will be developed with the help of the Japanese government, but funded by private investors.

Kuni Sato, press secretary for the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that the hospital would use state-of-the-art equipment, but that services provided by the hospital will initially be too expensive for most Cambodians to afford.

Health Minister Mam Bunheng said Sunday that no details were yet available on the planned emergency medical center, while councilor Takayoshi Kuromiya at the Japanese Embassy said that since the initiative involved private companies he could not provide further information.

Mr. Abe’s visit to Southeast Asia, which also took him to Laos, is part of an ongoing effort by Japan to increase its influence in the region amid a deterioration of its relationship with China over disputed island territories and China’s claim on maritime resources in the South China Sea.

On Saturday, Mr. Abe and Mr. Hun Sen agreed on the importance of settling maritime disputes peacefully “in order to establish the principle of the rule of the law in the Asia-Pacific region,” while also announcing further cooperation on military defense and peacekeeping activities.

Cambodia is widely seen as China’s closest ally in the region and is the beneficiary of billions of dollars in Chinese loans, yet Japan continues to be the biggest donor to Cambodia of development aid.

On Saturday Mr. Abe pledged to continue that support, including additional funds to the Khmer Rouge tribunal and for demining activities.

For Cambodia’s part, Mr. Hun Sen promised to improve the landscape for foreign investment and applauded the increase in Japanese companies investing in Cambodia. The two leaders also discussed establishing direct flights between Japan and Cambodia to boost tourism.

(Additional reporting by Colin Meyn)

© 2013, All rights reserved.