On Regional Tour, Japanese Minister Skips Cambodia

Cambodia is conspicuously missing from Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida’s itinerary for a trip to Southeast Asia this week that will see him visit Burma, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand—where he on Monday pledged $7 billion for the region over three years.

Mr. Kishida arrived in Bangkok on Sunday and is set to visit Burma today, Laos on Wednesday and Vietnam on Thursday, according to an itinerary from Japan’s Foreign Ministry. Cambodia is the only mainland Southeast Asian nation absent from the list.

“Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and Viet Nam,” the April 27 document said, “hold the key to Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) integration.”

“Through promptly establishing trustworthy relationships with Myanmar, Laos and Viet Nam where new regimes have just been launched, Minister Kishida will work to strengthen cooperation not only bilaterally but also in the regional and international arenas,” it said.

Contacted on Monday, Japanese Embassy spokesman Yoshihiro Abe confirmed that Mr. Kishida would not be visiting Cambodia but said he was unable to comment on the reasons due to the embassy being closed for Labor Day.

In a speech at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University on Monday, Mr. Kishida also announced a $7 billion, three-year project for Southeast Asia’s Mekong River countries—a region usually taken to include Cambodia—according to an article in the Associated Press.

“Japan’s foreign minister announced a $7 billion initiative Monday to promote development in Southeast Asia’s Mekong region, which encompasses parts of Vietnam, Laos and Thailand through which the river flows,” the article said, without noting Cambodia’s absence.

“We will make use of funds amounting to [$7 billion] toward cooperation with the Mekong region,” Mr. Kishida is quoted as saying, adding that much of the $7 billion would be put toward “roads, bridges and railways.”

“I am expecting the day when, as a result of these efforts, I can depart from Bangkok eastward in the morning and arrive in Ho Chi Minh City at night and enjoy pho for dinner,” he was quoted as saying.

Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Chum Sounry said on Monday that Japanese Ambassador Kumamaru Yuji met with Foreign Affairs Ministry Secretary of State Long Visalo on Wednesday and explained why Mr. Kishida would be skipping Cambodia during his visit to the region.

“Japan did not include Cambodia in this tour because the Japanese foreign minister already paid a visit to Cambodia in 2014. The second reason is that the vice foreign minister of Japan just paid a visit to Cambodia…last month,” Mr. Sounry said.

“The third reason is that there has just been a change of leaders in Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar. The reason for the visit to Thailand is that the Japanese foreign minister has to deliver a speech in Bangkok…. These were the reasons provided by the Japanese ambassador to His Excellency Long Visalo,” he said.

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said he was not concerned that there might be other reasons for leaving Cambodia off the itinerary.

“I have no idea my friend. You can manipulate and stipulate anything, but I’m telling you Cambodia and Japan have signed on to be strategic partners, and that is more important,” Mr. Siphan said.

“It’s not strange at all. We are all partners: dialogue partners and strategic partners. I don’t know what agreements the other countries have, but we have a very good relationship with Japan,” he said.

Japan has since 1993 been one of Cambodia’s biggest aid donors and, along with the E.U., the main foreign supporter for reform of the National Election Committee (NEC) in preparation for commune elections next year and the national election in 2018.

Over the past six months—since opposition leader Sam Rainsy fled to France to avoid a two-year prison sentence—political commentators and human rights monitors have complained of a deteriorating political environment ahead of the upcoming election cycle.

Deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha has also been the target of a far-reaching government campaign to investigate a sex scandal, which has led to the jailing of an opposition official and—on Monday—four rights workers and a senior NEC official.

Two opposition lawmakers have also been jailed despite their legal immunity from arrest, and the government has prohibited the CNRP from setting up an antenna for what would be the country’s first opposition TV station.

Ou Virak, head of the Future Forum think tank, said it was impossible to say why Mr. Kishida had left Cambodia off his itinerary without a statement from Japan, but that it was disappointing regardless.

“We wouldn’t know unless they say, but it would have been valuable if they came,” Mr. Virak said. “It’s disappointing that they won’t come. One reason could be that they are too busy and Cambodia is just not on their radar, which means we’re not important enough.”

“The second reason that they did not come could be the political tensions in Cambodia. It could be a combination of both reasons. But this could be the first casualty in the rising political tension,” he said.

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