A leading former opposition MP in Cambodia has called on Japan to abandon support for the parliamentary election process in July calling the vote a “sham”.
Mu Sochua, for vice chairwoman of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, which was banned from operating in Cambodia last year, said Tokyo should set aside its geopolitical rivalry with Beijing, which has offered strong support to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government and declare the elections undemocratically.
While the European Union and the United States have withdrawn backing for the process, Japan, South Korea, China, and Russia remain major donors to the government.
Speaking in Oslo, Norway, on Tuesday, Sochua said the continued support for the election process offered a veneer of respectability to an otherwise corrupt process.
“So we are calling for the international community to be on the side of democracy and to call the next election a sham – especially the government of Japan must pull itself out of this electoral process that is a sham,” she said.
“Some of these democratic governments still believe that they have to deal with China, but China is everywhere. China is not just in Cambodia... so be on the side of democracy rather than thinking about losing Cambodia to China.”
In November, the CNRP was dissolved by a controversial Supreme Court decision and more than 100 of its officials banned from politics for five years after they refused to align themselves with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.
The party’s then-leader, Kem Sokha, was earlier jailed on treason charges for his alleged role in a conspiracy to overthrow Hun Sen, though the government has yet to produce evidence of the alleged plot.
The CNRP was expected to challenge Hun Sen’s three-decade rule of Cambodia at the elections in July after gaining a large minority at the last election in 2013 and increasing its power in local elections in recent years.
Some 19 minor parties are set to contest the election with the CPP on July 29.
China has offered vocal support to Hun Sen’s government in its crackdown on the opposition, civil society, and independent media outlets. Japan recently proposed it play the role of mediator in new talks between the CPP and CNRP officials, but Hun Sen turned down the offer.
Suzuki Hironori, counsel at the Japanese Embassy in Phnom Penh, said: “We have conveyed our message for all stakeholders, including the ruling party and opposition parties, that it is important to make efforts to hold this year’s national election in a way that will reflect the will of Cambodian people.”
Earlier this week, a National Election Committee spokesman told reporters that the body had secured enough funding to foot the $53 million cost of the election.
Sok Eysan, a CPP spokesman, said any criticism of Cambodia’s democratic process was “insane” and “absurd”.
“The presence of the former opposition party would not necessarily mean having democracy,” he said.
China has inked billions of dollars worth of investment and loan deals with Cambodia this year, while Japan has also forged a $90 million aid agreement with Cambodia
Sophal Ear, an associate professor of diplomacy and global affairs at the Occidental College in Los Angeles, said Japan was motivated to maintain positive relations with Hun Sen’s government.
“In that regard, Japan may see its involvement in Cambodia as strategically driven by China's involvement. They are rivals economically as the 2nd (China) and 3rd (Japan) largest economies in the world. Cambodia is a playground for both countries, but clearly, Japan is a distant 2nd to China's #1 status in Cambodia,” he said in an email.
“Unfortunately ... Japan has for too long conceded too much in Cambodia.”