Prime Minister Hun Sen said on Tuesday that a meeting with Japanese Foreign Affairs Minister Taro Kono next week would not include discussions of the dissolved CNRP, affirming his commitment to holding this year’s elections while rejecting the possibility of negotiations or pardons for the opposition.
“Both foreign ministers will sign [agreements on] the aid to Cambodia . . . We will discuss other topics, but not you,” he said, in apparent reference to the now-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party.
Japan has continued to support the upcoming national elections even as other democratic countries have pulled back assistance after the forced dissolution of the CNRP. At a meeting last week between the two countries, a Japanese emissary brought up the possibility of a rapprochement between the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and the opposition – an idea immediately rejected by the ruling party.
Hun Sen said the Japanese foreign affairs minister will arrive in Cambodia on Sunday, but Hironori Suzuki, the Japan embassy counsellor in Phnom Penh, said the visit had "not been decided at this moment".
Sukuki said Japan continues to cooperate on development issues with Cambodia, including ongoing projects such as National Road 5 improvement project and a teacher education reform initiative that includes construction of a teacher education college.
Paul Chambers, of Naresuan University in Thailand, said he expected Japan to remain supportive regardless of the political situation.
“Don’t expect any pressure from Japan regarding democracy and human rights in Cambodia,” he said in an email, explaining that it had always supported the CPP “despite clear indications of voter intimidation and election irregularities”.
Preap Kol, director of Transparency International Cambodia, said he believed the Japanese were attempting to remain close to the Cambodian government so as to steer it back in a democratic direction.
“Japan has so far been generous towards [the] Cambodian Government by not making any critical comment about political development in Cambodia and by continuing to support electoral process,” he said in an email. “But I strongly believe that Japan has remained engaged till now in the hope that the political situation could be improved between now and the July election.”
He argued that Japan’s current position “might not be very firm and could be changed in the future” if no improvement took place.
Recently, Japan has expressed concern about democratic backslides, though it has not changed its level of assistance, with Parliamentary Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs Manabu Horii telling the United Nations Human Rights Council earlier in March that “it is vital to conduct general elections this July in a way that appropriately reflects the will of the people”.
Referring to a meeting last week with an adviser to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Hun Sen said Japan had not called for negotiations, but merely “tested whether negotiations can take place or not” – an impossibility, he said, by law.
“If I hold negotiations, I will violate the law myself. Someone opposing the Supreme Court’s verdict will be jailed for two-and-a-half years,” the premier said.
The Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP in November and banned 118 members from politics for five years. The trial, which was initiated by a Ministry of Interior complaint and preceded by a series of legal amendments to reallocate opposition seats to either the CPP or a handful of minor parties, has been widely seen by observers as a political manoeuvre to wipe the CNRP – the country’s only viable opposition – off the electoral landscape.
“In total, there are only two ... ‘don’t haves’ and one ‘have’. One ‘have’ means we only have an election, but we have no negotiations, and no pardons,” he said. “You can wait until horns grow on a horse, but you will not meet [with us].”
Kol, of Transparency International, also encouraged negotiations for the sake of public discourse.
“Cambodian people want to see their political leaders to work together hands in hands,” he said. “It is universally believed that a minimum criterion for politicians to be considered mature is when the ruling and opposing political figures can talk to each other and deal with their differences in a decent manner.”