Japan Delegation Bears Aid to Cambodia, Despite Concern Over Political Tensions

Japan will send a high-level delegation to Cambodia this weekend to meet with Prime Minister Hun Sen and prepare two deals worth more than U.S. $90 million in assistance, despite mounting international concerns over his crackdown on the opposition in the lead up to a national election.

Japan's Minister of Foreign Affairs Taro Kono will lead the delegation to Phnom Penh on April 8 with a view to strengthening the bilateral relationship between Japan and Cambodia during the 65th anniversary of their establishment of diplomatic relations, Cambodia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a press release Friday.

In a ceremony presided over by Hun Sen, Kono and his counterpart, Prak Sokhonn, will sign documents paving the way for a Japanese grant of 500 million yen (U.S. $4.7 million) for the implementation of the Economic and Social Development Program in Cambodia, as well as a 9.2 billion-yen (U.S. $86.25 million) loan for the Phnom Penh City Transmission and Distribution System Expansion Project.

The assistance comes amid an ongoing government crackdown on the political opposition, NGOs and the media´┐Żactions widely seen as part of a bid by Hun Sen to ensure his ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) remains in power for another term following a ballot planned for July 29 that is widely expected to be neither free nor fair.

Opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) President Kem Sokha was arrested last September on charges of collaborating with the U.S. to overthrow the government, and Cambodia's Supreme Court followed in November with a decision to dissolve the CNRP for its role in his alleged plot, stripping officials of their posts and banning many from politics for five years.

In February, Washington announced that it was ending or curtailing several U.S. Treasury Department, USAID, and American military assistance programs that support Cambodia's taxation department, local governments, and military.

The U.S. cited recent setbacks to democracy in Cambodia, including Senate elections in which the CPP took all seats in an uncontested vote held just over three months after the Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP.

That same month, the European Union threatened the Cambodian government with specific targeted measures if it failed to stop using the judiciary as a political tool to harass and intimidate political opponents, civil society, labor rights activists, and human rights defenders.

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.

Last month, Embassy of Japan counselor Hironori Suzuki told RFA's Khmer Service 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.

Suzuki said that Japan has been encouraging Cambodian stakeholders, including the Government, to realize dialogue among domestic people involved in politics and to ensure the environment in which the rights of all political people and civil society organizations are respected and they can carry out legitimate activities.

But Cambodia's government has repeatedly ruled out negotiations with the CNRP, including as recently as Wednesday, when CPP spokesman Sok Eysan dismissed Kem Sokha's request for release on medical grounds as coming too late and said that dialogue between the CPP and the CNRP was impossible because the opposition made a big mistake.

Waning influence

Japan has already provided Cambodia's National Election Commission (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.

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