Situation in Cambodia: Retreat of Democracy Has Betrayed Japan’s Expectations

It must be said that Cambodia is moving in the opposite direction of what was expected by Japan, which has been supporting the country’s transition to democracy for about 30 years. The strengthening of the dictatorial government is extremely regrettable.

In Cambodia, rule by former Prime Minister Hun Sen and his family is being established.

Hun Sen, who held power as prime minister for nearly 40 years, has continued his political activities as leader of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party even after naming his eldest son, Hun Manet, as his successor.

In the latest upper house election, the party won an overwhelming victory, taking 55 of the 58 seats up for grabs. Hun Sen was also elected and is expected to be tapped as upper house president soon. The upper house presidency is a key post, whose occupant serves as acting head of state in the absence of the king. It is clear that Hun Sen will stay on as a power behind the throne.

The overwhelming victory of the ruling party following last year’s lower house election does not mean there is strong public support. The Candlelight Party, the leading opposition party, was excluded from the most recent election, as it was in the lower house election, with “incomplete documentation” cited as the reason.

The current situation, in which the suppression of opposition parties and the elimination of opposition forces continues even after a change of prime minister, indicates the adverse effects of family rule with Hun Sen at the top. Last month, his third son also became deputy prime minister.

The fact that China is supporting this government cannot be overlooked. While Western nations have criticized Hun Sen’s iron-fisted rule and moved to impose sanctions, China has provided huge amounts of aid, leading to expanded influence for Beijing in Southeast Asia.

Although it is undeniable that Chinese aid and investment have promted Cambodia’s economic growth, there are doubts that the Hun family will attempt to maintain long-term power through its dependence on China.

It must not be forgotten that the United Nations, Japan, the United States and Europe provided assistance to Cambodia, which had been ravaged by civil war for more than 20 years since the 1970s, thereby laying the foundation for reconstruction and democratization.

In particular, Japan was deeply involved in the peace process and the implementation of elections, including the deployment of its first U.N. peacekeeping operations unit of the Self-Defense Forces to Cambodia.

In this process, there were two tragic murder cases in which two Japanese —superintendent Haruyuki Takata, a civilian police officer, and Atsuhito Nakata, a U.N. volunteer, were killed.

Since Japan has been hoping to revive Cambodia as a democratic country despite these sacrifices, it is difficult to accept the current situation in which elections are being held in name only.

The Japanese government has built a good relationship with Hun Sen. It must urge him to allow the opposition to participate in elections and to move forward on the path to democracy again.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, March 8, 2024)