Interpreting Japan’s post-election position on Cambodia

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Japan provided technical support to the National Election Committee for conducting the July 29 general election. KT/Chor Sokunthea

Public debates on Japan’s position on Cambodia’s July election have gained steam after Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono reportedly expressed his “disappointment” over the July 29 election. NHK World reported Mr Kono saying, “The results were disappointing in many ways. He noted that many of the ballots were judged invalid, although Japan had given its support to ensure that the polls would reflect the will of the voters”.

Currently there are two contradictory views on this new posture of Japan. Firstly, Japan was faced with a hard choice of putting pressure on Cambodia to restore democracy and encouraging Cambodian political leaders to forge political dialogues and negotiations, particularly between the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the outlawed Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). Secondly, the Japanese foreign minister’s comments could be read as a mere diplomatic gesture for Japan to be seen as “doing something” in the face of opposition emanating from Japanese protestors against the Cambodian general election.

When it comes to Cambodia, what are the motives and interests of Japan?

Ever since the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1991, Japanese leaders from across the board have had a deep emotional attachment with the Cambodian people. The Paris Peace Accords also stipulated the formation of a UN peacekeeping mission to prepare the war-torn country for democratic elections. Senior Japanese diplomat Yasushi Akashi was made special representative of the then UN secretary-general Boutros-Boutros Ghali in the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) in 1992. Also for the first time ever, Japanese peacekeepers were deployed to UNTAC and served under the blue flag despite protests back home that this contravened Japan’s pacifist constitution.

Witnessing how the country suffered from a prolonged civil war, Japan took bold steps in the national reconstruction of post-conflict Cambodia. Tokyo holds a firm belief that peace, democracy, and development are the foundations of nation building.

With high expectations that Cambodian political leaders would give political negotiation a chance, Japan conducted a shuttle diplomacy few months ahead of the July election. Unfortunately, Japan’s goodwill diplomatic mission failed. There was no political dialogue between the CPP and the CNRP.

Japan has been consistent in expressing its stance that it wishes to see the election to truly reflect the will of the people, meaning that every Cambodian should be entitled to choose the political party that they support. Political rights and political choice matter in a free and fair election. The invalid votes, which is about 600,000, made Japan disappointed.

Nonetheless, the issue of invalid or spoiled votes is a sensitive one to deal with. In the absence of any scientific data, one cannot conclude or determine the valid reasons for the large number of spoiled or invalid votes. For one, voters were confused by the mixed signals they received. The CNRP, declared illegal by the Supreme Court, called for a blanket boycott of the general election. Political parties like the Grassroots Democratic Party also confused their supporters by their stance – first saying they might boycott the election and then later changing their minds.

Since Japan has provided technical assistance to the National Election Committee, it has every right to be disappointed with the high number of invalid votes. Efforts now should be made by all to ensure that the percentage of spoiled ballots does not increase in future elections.

Towards this end, voter education and literacy must be improved by 2022 for the next commune election and 2023 for the next general election. Voters must realise the consequences of their act of invalidating ballots as this is a wilful abrogation of their right to choose their representatives.

Democracy, from the Japanese perspective, does not mean that the majority takes all. The rights and interests of the minority need to be respected too. Therefore, the electoral body might need to make a persuasive case on this and explain to Japan and other countries the implications of the spoilt votes on electoral democracy. If Japan is convinced that the spoilt votes do not seriously affect the outcome of the July 29 election and the fundamentals of democracy are still intact then it will not proceed with punitive measures on Cambodia.

The Japanese government, by all measures, does not want to sour its bilateral ties with Cambodia. But Cambodia needs to understand that the Japanese public has the right to

scrutinise and hold their government accountable for its foreign policy and actions abroad. The Japanese

government, in turn, needs to convince its taxpayers that Japan’s financial and technical support for the election in Cambodia were meaningful, and could bear fruits for further democratic consolidation and development in the country and the region.

Japan has a long-term interest and commitment to Cambodia. And the consolidation of democracy remains one of the key national interests of Japan in its foreign policy towards Cambodia. Therefore, Cambodia must be sensitive to Japan’s interests and be proactive to convince Japan that democracy prevails and thrives, while the door for political negotiation for the sake of national unity remains open.

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