Japan's diplomacy misperceived
When the human rights situation in Cambodia deteriorated last September, with restrictions on civil society groups, activists looked to foreign governments in particular those big donors like Japan for help. But a legal expert well acquainted with Japan's political norm dimmed our hope.
He said: "Please do not expect to hear something from Japan. I used to live and study in Japan for seven years and I know them well. Japan does not want to provoke any tension with a hosting government but instead maintain the status quo."
I was shocked. I believe everyone wants the status quo, but only on the condition that the current status quo is in their favour. I am not convinced that the current status quo in Cambodia is in Japan's favour. I argue that silence does not necessarily mean agreement and Japan is quiet because its indirect engagements work more effectively than direct engagements. Thus, Japan's Gentleman's Diplomacy should not be wrongly perceived.
Building democracy and promoting human rights have always been Japan's interests in Cambodia. Since 1992, Japan has donated no less than US$2.5 billion (83 billion baht) of its Official Development Aid (ODA) to Cambodia. While a large proportion of Japan's ODA has been allocated to physical infrastructure, hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on legal reform, judicial reform, promotion of good governance and human resources development. Cambodia's new Civil Code and Civil Code Procedures that were developed in 2011, for instance, were technically and financially supported by Japan. Moreover, in order to help strengthen the rule of law and bring justice to the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime, Japan has so far donated at least $86 million to support the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), otherwise known as the Khmer Rouge tribunal. According to ECCC spokesman Neth Pheaktra, as of 2017, Japan has contributed up to 31% of the total budget of the ECCC making it the Court's biggest donor. Clearly, promoting justice, democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Cambodia is in the interests of Japan.
Furthermore, Japan's involvement with the European Union (EU) in providing both financial and technical assistance to reform Cambodia's troublesome National Election Committee (NEC) is quite low-profile, but strategically has produced a tremendous impact. Historically, none of the five general elections held in Cambodia since 1993 has gone unprotested. Election fraud, duplicate names on voter lists, the NEC's impartiality, and unnecessarily complicated NEC procedures are always critical challenges for free and fair elections. Post-election protests or demonstrations have already become a de facto tradition in Cambodia.
The last national election in 2013 indicated that nothing had changed. Millions of people came out to demonstrate on the streets and the government responded with violence. Japan understands that the root cause of political problems in Cambodia is the lack of free and fair elections and in order to have them, reform of the NEC is a must.
Japan's quiet but diligent job was vindicated by a satisfactory outcome of Cambodia's local election in 2017. Technical assistance provided by Japan and the EU contributed to smooth election processes. Although there remained some election-related irregularities, they were minor and did not affect the election results. With a voter turnout rate of more than 80% and no serious case of violence reported on election day, Cambodia's civil society groups and foreign donors acknowledged that the election was largely free and fair. Both the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) and the opposing Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) accepted the result and there was no demonstration or protest against the result.
The US Embassy released a statement the day after the election congratulating Cambodian voters on an orderly and peaceful election process, saying it was a milestone for the development of democracy into the future.
It's important to note that the local election in June 2017 was the first election organised by the NEC after its reform in 2014.
Technically, the election served as a preliminary outcome of the NEC reform, and if the trends continue to go smoothly, it's highly likely the national election in 2018 will be a free and fair process.
Finally, being quiet could be Japan's strategic intention to keep a channel of diplomacy open behind closed doors. Amid the rising political and diplomatic tensions between the Cambodian government and some Western countries, particularly the United States, Japan might use its quiet diplomacy to mediate the tension between the stakeholders, working to find a political and diplomatic exit that is acceptable for all.
It is true this argument could hardly be proved in the sense of high diplomatic confidentiality, but it does not mean it is impossible, given the smooth relations between Japanese diplomats and Cambodian politicians. As former opposition leader Sam Rainsy wrote in his memoir We Didn't Start the Fire: My Struggle for Democracy in Cambodia, when he was held custody at the Ministry of Interior in 1998, it was Yukihisa Fujita, head of the Japanese branch of UK-based worldwide religious movement Moral Rearmament, who was able to secure his release through a diplomatic intervention.
Like the US, Japan always supports the promotion of human rights and democracy in Cambodia. However, unlike the US, which frequently entangles itself in direct tensions over human rights issues and the democratisation of Cambodia, Japan finds that verbalising criticism is sometimes less important than getting the work done. Japan's Gentleman's Diplomacy avoids direct engagement to deal with sensitive issues, and instead actively works behind the scenes to drive for result-based outcomes. Silence does not necessarily mean agreement, and that is the art of Japan's Gentleman's Diplomacy.
Sek Sophal is a researcher at the Democracy Promotion Centre, the Ritsumeikan Centre for Asia Pacific Studies, Japan.