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Japanese Ambassador Imagawa takes his leave

A rguably the country's most experienced, knowledgeable and 'connected' diplomat is leaving Cambodia next month. Matthew Grainger talks to Japanese Ambassador Yukio Imagawa.

JAPANESE Ambassador Yukio Imagawa leaves Cambodia on January 18, severing almost 39 years of personal links with the Kingdom, and admits being "very sad" at the prospect.

Imagawa, 63, is personal friends with King Norodom Sihanouk; he has written two books and many articles on Cambodia; he is fluent in Khmer; he was UNTAC chief Yasushi Akashi's "minder"; and has overseen his country spend $373 million here since 1991.

Recently, he has been praised by co-Prime Minister Hun Sen as representing a nation that does not meddle or comment about Cambodian affairs.

In 1957 in Phnom Penh, Imagawa was a 24-year-old trainee diplomat at his first posting when he met King Sihanouk.

"Sihanouk asked me what I intended doing. I told him I was going to study Khmer and Cambodian law. He looked at me and said 'you are the first Japanese diplomat to study the affairs of my country', and he encouraged me from then on.

"I decided then to devote myself to Cambodia and Cambodian-Japanese relations."

Phnom Penh was a very beautiful city, more wealthy, cleaner and safer than many parts of Japan. "I was caught by the Cambodian charm," Imagawa said.

Of the 15 law students in his class, only Imagawa and one woman would manage to live through the later Khmer Rouge regime. The woman, he said, now lives in France.

Imagawa was lectured more than once by the university's most popular professor - Kheiu Samphan, now described as the nominal head of the Khmer Rouge.

"We knew each other because I was the only foreigner in the class," Imagawa said. "He was very famous among the students."

"I listened to his lectures about Cambodian economic development... this thoughts were based on the Marxist economy. He placed much importance on social development using the big local labor force without foreign investment.

"He is a polite man, very clever," Imagawa said. He would later be professionally reunited with Samphan during the peace talks in the early 90s.

Imagawa - whose first stint in Cambodia ended in 1965 - returned briefly to Phnom Penh immediately following the Lon Nol coup.

"I was very disappointed. I didn't meet Lon Nol, but I met Sirik Matak and other leaders, and all they could say was 'Sihanouk was bad'.

"Sihanouk has good points and bad points, but the reaction of all [the Lon Nol leaders] was always negative. I reported back to Tokyo, and never returned to Cambodia [while it was] under the Khmer Rouge regime, nor after the Vietnamese invasion."

Imagawa worked in Algeria, France (where he worked principally on Cambodian affairs), Laos and Vietnam, and headed the JICA aid organization.

During the State of Cambodia regime - which Japan and most other countries did not recognize - Imagawa spent much time in China and Thailand working on Cambodian affairs.

In 1989 he co-chaired one of the only successful international committees that spent years brokering peace - and eventually elections - in Cambodia.

His "Third Committee" was the only one that achieved it's goal of repatriating and caring for returning Khmer refugees with the unanimous support of both the peacemakers and the warring factions.

The first two committees, dealing with military and political affairs, "couldn't do anything," he said.

Immediately following the Paris Peace Agreements, Tokyo sent Imagawa to Phnom Penh as it's ambassador. He arrived on Nov 10, 1991. US ambassador Charlie Twining came a day later, and Prince Sihanouk on the 14th.

"I supported Akashi's UNTAC. It was the first time in our history that a Japanese civil defense force had been sent overseas. I arranged everything for the Japanese battalion."

Samphan, as the Khmer Rouge representative, would meet with Imagawa in his room at the Cambodiana hotel.

"When I reminded him that I was the Japanese student in the law faculty [where he taught] he said 'yes, yes, I remember'... but I really don't know if he remembers or not," Imagawa said.

"If you had seen him or talked to him you could not recognize him as the leader of some genocidal... no, no," he smiles and shakes his head.

"He was a gentleman.

"Once KR radio called for all Japanese to be killed, but two days later Kheiu Samphan was in my room, smiling and talking to me. I couldn't understand what he was really thinking," he said.

No discussion was ever held between the two about atrocities committed during the KR's 1975-79 reign.

He said the only time the subject was broached was during the peace talks in Paris, when the [SoC] communist leaders would begin any discussion by remonstrating with the Khmer Rouge representatives about what happened during their reign, and the Khmer Rouge replying about the Vietnamese influences within the SoC, he said.

He paints a picture of an on-going impasse at the negotiation table, alleviated only by the insistence of FUNCINPEC members to tackle the current problems and issues at hand.

Imagawa has written two books, on Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, and many, many articles about Cambodia.

His books, he notes, have been illegally reproduced in Cambodia "and are sold to just about every Japanese tourist that comes here" without royalties to the author - "Ahh, but that's OK, they do that here..." he laughs.

Imagawa is married with two grown children, his daughter having been born at Calmette hospital in Phnom Penh. He intends in the future to probably give lecture courses at one of two universities in Tokyo.

"I'm very sad" to leave, he said, "very sad.

"I have spent 12 years and three months in Cambodia, and on January 18 I leave. I began my job under King Sihanouk, and I will end it under King Sihanouk.

"But I will come back again, surely."

Imagawa is described by fellow diplomats as a very well-respected ambassador and very-well connected.

"He took the trouble to learn Khmer, and he had very good connections within the government," said one source.

"Such connections are very difficult to achieve," he said, "but that leads into other problems."

"With [those connections] also goes the tendency to concentrate on picking out the positives in what's going on here."

Imagawa "was very much like [American ambassador] Charlie Twining in that respect," he said.

When outlining Imagawa's argument about a new government that is on track, another diplomatic source said: "Sounds just like Charlie."

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