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Cambodians take to Tokyo streets to protest PM Hun Sen's Japan visit

Cambodian residents in Japan march to protest the government of Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen and the general election held on July 29, 2018, near Shinjuku Station in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward, on Oct. 7, 2018. (Mainichi/Alina Kordesch)

TOKYO -- Cambodian residents in Japan gathered in the capital's Shinjuku Ward on Oct. 7 to protest the government of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and his diplomatic visit to Japan for the 10th Mekong-Japan Summit Meeting on Oct. 9.

Vanna Hay (Mainichi/Alina Kordesch)

"The people of Cambodia cannot protest on the streets like this, so we Cambodians living abroad have to protest in their place to make sure their voices are heard," said one of the rally organizers, a woman who goes by the name of Bora.

The Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) estimated some 600 people gathered for the demonstration organized by the Japanese branch of the Cambodia National Rescue Movement (CNRM), an internationally based successor group to the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). The party was dissolved by court order in November 2017 following CNRP president Kem Sokha's arrest the previous September, after Hun Sen accused the opposition leader of treason. Sokha remains under supervision according to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, while party cofounder Sam Rainsy is said to be living in exile.

The dissolution of the CNRP assured Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party took all 125 seats in the country's National Assembly in a July 29 general election dubbed a "sham" by the international community.

Waving Cambodian and CNRP flags and carrying banners denouncing Hun Sen and his election tactics, participants chanted in Japanese, "Quit Hun Sen!" and "We don't need Hun Sen!" as they marched from the shadow of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building and through the busy Shinjuku district. Hun Sen has ruled Cambodia for over 30 years.

"What motivated me is making a change in our society in Cambodia. (Because the situation) is getting worse and worse," said rally organizer and CNMR Japan head Vanna Hay, a Tokyo resident since 2008. This is the third protest he has organized in the Japanese capital, mainly via Facebook, following one in Hibiya Park and the Ginza district on June 17, and another in Shibakoen Park near Tokyo Tower on July 29.

Even more than the lack of fair elections, Hay called corruption the biggest problem facing Cambodia, saying that "all the people in the government body, they bought their position." He claimed that officials often borrow funds from family to buy their way into a government post, but then must take bribes to pay the money back. Hay lambasted the practice as it prioritizes big-money interests from China, Vietnam and Malaysia over the needs of Cambodians themselves.

With the exception of weapons and ammunition, products made in Cambodia are guaranteed tariff-free import into the European common market under the Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme covering "least developed countries." Hay claims that some big companies from outside of Cambodia are using this as a loophole to push their products into the European market tariff free.

However, EBA status comes only if the government respected United Nations and International Labor Organization conventions, and in an Oct. 5 statement European Commissioner for Trade Cecilia Malmstrom said the process of removing Cambodia from the list of EBA countries has begun. It's a step in the right direction in Hay's eyes, and he hopes that it will help increase international awareness and pressure on the government.

"We are expecting our voice to be heard by the international community, especially by Japan," Hay said of the Oct. 7 protest. "Japan is one of the middle men that helped make the peace accord in Cambodia in 1991 (ending the civil war there). Japan can go and be the referees again between the opposition and ruling party and help find a solution" to Cambodia's political crisis.

The unofficial leader of the CNRP in Japan Nav Khan shared Hay's sentiments, commenting through an interpreter that he hoped the protests sent a message to the Japanese government about the dissatisfaction of the Cambodian people. Khan was pleased with the turnout, and said that next he wants to mount a protest by where Hun Sen will be staying during his time in Tokyo.

(By Alina Kordesch, The Mainichi Staff Writer)

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