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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The silence of Japan: Big money for peace, stability and UNTAC success

The silence of Japan: Big money for peace, stability and UNTAC success

S econd Prime Minister Hun Sen reckons Japan is the perfect donor. Japan says nothing, he says, about human rights and democracy - and Western donors should take note. But what do the Japanese think? Matthew Grainger reports.

IN a country of patrons, Cambodia has got 373 million reasons to be indebted to Japan.

That's how many aid dollars Japan has poured in here since the UN-sponsored elections.

With its sheer weight of cash, Japan is the premier player in most of the big infrastructure developments in Cambodia.

It has spent more money than the World Bank, the ADB, every UN agency, the European Union and the IMF - put together.

For every dollar the United States has spent here, Japan has spent $2.50.

And - as co-Prime Minister Hun Sen said recently in reacting to criticisms made by Western donors - "[Japan] does not interfere" and talk about democracy and human rights.

These are Tokyo's motives for spending large and saying little:

  • Number one - peace in Cambodia, and peace in the region, is vital in ensuring a peaceful, prosperous and stable Japan.
  • Number two - it ensures the continuing perception of success of the UNTAC mission. ("[UNTAC] was the first time Japan sent troops overseas since the war, and it was run by Akashi," one diplomat based in Washington DC told the Post. "Of course [Japan] wants to make sure it doesn't fall apart.")
  • Number three - though this remains unsaid - is the generally accepted formula that for every dollar spent on aid, maybe three or more dollars will eventually flow back to the donor in trade.
  • Number four - at least publicly, Japan sees the fledgling Royal Government as being green, but on the right track.

Also, Japan - unlike the United States - doesn't spend money on human rights and democracy initiatives. It spends on bridges, roads, power and water plants, schools, hospitals, and other photogenic and non-controversial projects.

Japan's out-going Ambassador Yukio Imagawa said he was "really very amazed" that Hun Sen praised Japan as being a silent, compliant donor.

"He was angry - that I understand," Imagawa said of Hun Sen's calls for protests against Western embassies. "With my experience of the Cambodian people I did not think there would be attacks against embassies. Maybe the French and American ambassadors took it seriously...

"[Hun Sen] would not do such a thing," said Imagawa, who acknowledges the Second PM's political strength, "but of course we would have hoped that a Prime Minister would not have said such a thing."

"In this country the most important human right is people having enough to eat. Enough food to stave off starvation, a small house with security, that's the most important human right for Cambodians," he said.

His argument mirrors that of First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh.

Opponents to such an argument, however, say communities can have both full rice bowls as well as other freedoms, and that it is not an "either-or" argument.

Moreover, freedoms such as an independent press and judiciary are necessary to protect the rights of the people, critics say.

"People are more likely to have enough food if there is a free press to highlight corruption, for instance," said one Western diplomat whose country has been criticized by Cambodia for meddling.

"That argument [made by Ranariddh and Imagawa, among others] is specious," he said.

Imagawa points out that both FUNCINPEC and the CPP had to overcome huge problems to form the current coalition.

"Compromise was necessary, and both sides are compromising, so one cannot expect complete democracy," he said.

Imagawa - an unabashed Sihanouk supporter - said it was the King who brokered the coalition "which was not very regular or ordinary, it was very strange to foreigners. But it was also very clever because if there had been only one Prime Minister, either from FUNCINPEC or the CPP, surely there would not have been peace."

"Of course [Japan] doesn't expect a complete domination of either communism or Royalism [within the Cambodian government], but this model is going comparatively - and I always say comparatively - well," he said.

"Sure, it's not 100 percent.

"This democracy is not like in any other country... it's a guarded democracy... this is really a Cambodian type democracy, and it's not hostile to or against Western democracies - but it's not the same," he said.

Imagawa said Cambodia would be "democratic" and peaceful, but to have "real" democracy would take time.

"Two years is not enough... two years after the formation of a new government we must not expect big changes."

"We must find out what is good in what they are doing here... we must not ignore the primitive and very good tendencies toward democracy," he said.

Cambodia had "the Sam Rainsy problem, the Son Sann problem, the Sirivudh problem, and these are very unhappy events," he said.

However, foreigners - and, by implication, the West which has been critical of progress and accordingly angered Phnom Penh lawmakers - "must give Cambodia time to sort out these problems by itself".

"Of course we must watch carefully" but it was better not to intervene.

"I'm sure by the King's suggestion this will be solved the Cambodian way," Imagawa said.

Imagawa said that Tokyo would reconsider and if necessary stop aid to Cambodia if the situation "was really against democracy".

"But I think Cambodia is going slowly in a good direction, so we will continue our aid," he said.

Nor would there be any conditions attached to Japan's donations, as the Americans are considering.

"But in our heart, to ensure Cambodia will be a better democratic country, we are supporting and encouraging them to join ASEAN," he said.

Asked whether the United States was in a very difficult position of being forced to agitate because their aid went mainly to democratic and human rights institutions - such as free labor movements, law reform and rights groups - while Japan spent mainly on bridges and roads, Imagawa laughed and said: "I cannot say anything."

Generally unfavorable newspaper and television coverage has been blamed for unfairly influencing public opinion against the Cambodian government - especially in the West.

Imagawa said that wire service reports [from Phnom Penh] did also tend to influence Japanese public opinion, but that the scope and direction of Japanese aid was almost certainly unlikely to suffer.

Imagawa said the FUNCINPEC/CPP coalition would continue "even if some people like it or not." Peace depended on a contiuned coalition, he said.

He personally thought that the CPP would gain more votes in the next election than it did in the last.

The only political imponderable was "if there is a coup... but this [coalition] system will continue I'm sure, that is the reality," he said.

For a supposedly compliant donor, Imagawa said he regularly talked with Hun Sen and Ranariddh "and always ask them to keep this Constitutional Monarchy system with peace and democracy."

"Why? Well... for the Japanese what is very necessary is to have peace in this region. It is necessary for the peaceful existence of Japan... we are not a military power and we depend on trade," he said.

Peace was also needed for Cambodia to slowly gather riches and prosperity "so that is why we do not talk about conditions... though this is not to encourage Cambodia to do anything against democracy".

A peaceful Cambodia would also ensure that the "fruit of what the United Nations did" could be kept.

"We don't want to see Akashi's efforts abandoned," he said.

The democratic system enshrined in the Constitution "will not be abandoned easily and [the Cambodian government] respects that," he said.

Imagawa said he knew the character of the Cambodian people and added that should donors began conditioning aid "[Cambodians] will react the other way," he said.

"They have much pride and are very nationalistic. We must not do anything to harm that pride or nationalistic feeling.

However, sources told the Post that behind the scenes, Imagawa has spent much of his time lobbying Hun Sen and Ranariddh to stop the damaging political infighting.

Imagawa's pleas that the political factions show a united front have not been entirely successful, sources claim.

"[Imagawa] is a diplomat, and a good one... but he has found it lately very difficult to remain so," said one diplomatic source.

Japanese patronage of Cambodia is also historical.

Imagawa talked of the Japanese military occupying Cambodia toward the end of World War II, disarming the French.

"The young King Sihanouk did not declare independence just to please the Japanese. And many people say [Sihanouk] was pro-French, but that is untrue.

"The Japanese saw him as very nationalistic, they wanted to appeal to his nationalistic mind. Maybe the French were very angry about that," Imagawa said.

"Sihanouk always negotiated, and sometimes it was very tricky.

"He achieved independence without blood being spilled, and years before Laos and South Vietnam," he said.

"Some people, like the United States, say he was a changing Prince, and maybe that's true, but his were always well-calculated maneuvers," he said.

"Now his position is different under the new Constitution.

"He is now 73, but I think if he was younger he could not be able to stay in such a position.

"Sihanouk must lead with his spiritual influence... and act up to his [Constitutional] limitations. I don't know if he is happy or not, but he is doing good work," he said, "... as is this government."



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