Cambodian envoy to Japan on three-point mission

by Angela Jeffs

“Hello, hello,” Pou Sothirak greets warmly as he enters the reception room of the Cambodian Embassy in Akasaka, central Tokyo. Then as a staff member follows on behind, with a camera: “Now stand here with me for a photo. Right, we’re done. We have to let him take these official pictures, otherwise he doesn’t have a job!”

Five months into the job as ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary to the Royal Embassy of Cambodia (Kampuchea) in Japan, Sothirak is a powerhouse of energy and enthusiasm. He has just returned from a junior high school in Meguro, where he gave a 30-minute talk about the problem of land mines in his country.

“How many land mines are there still in Cambodia? Millions. Many kinds too — antipersonnel, antitank, bombs. One-third of the country is affected and only half has been cleared. We hope to be free of them by 2020, but the cost is crippling, as each weapon has to dealt with one by one. Terrible when we have so many other things that beg for improvement and development.”

With its population depleted by genocide and emigration, no Cambodian talent is ignored, but quickly given the chance to bloom. So it was with Sothirak. “Being a Boy Scout became a career. I was a freedom fighter on the border with Thailand for seven years, between 1986 and 1993.”

He was at high school in France when his father was granted political asylum by the American government in 1975. “He was cultural attache in Kampong Thom, northwest of the capital, Phnom Penh, until King (Norodom) Sihanouk was deposed.”

Sothirak then moved to the U.S., where he took a degree in electrical and computer engineering at Oregon State University. Although made secure with a job with the aircraft manufacturer Boeing, by the mid-1980s, he found he could no longer ignore what was happening in the country of his birth. “Watching the news on TV, hearing and reading about the flood of refugees escaping the madness of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, I got angry, wanted to help.”

Filled with “humanitarian spirit,” he moved to the Thai-Cambodian border, where he helped organize carriers of supplies into the camps, develop community projects, and conduct psychological warfare against the Vietnamese occupation. “We had half a million refugees along the border.”

Then came the first U.N.-sponsored free elections of 1993, and in the shake of a dog’s tail, Sothirak was appointed minister of industry, mining and energy. “Yes, very sudden, very fast! But there was so much to do in so little time, and so few of us. We had three kinds of refugees to try and repatriate: those ravaged by war between 1973 and 1990, those who had chosen to settle abroad, and political refugees.”

From day one on the job in the capital, Sothirak was pushed to prove his capability. “I’d been elected as MP for Kampongsom for the Funcinpec Party. Founded by King Sihanouk, this party became a resistance movement after the communist takeover. I was Funcinpec’s head of education and humanitarian assistance at the refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border.”

When he was asked earlier this year to head the embassy in Japan, Sothirak was given just two days to think it over. “I was an elected MP, with a ministerial post and a lot of responsibility. I’m not a career diplomat. To tell the truth, I came only because I know Japan can do a lot for Cambodia — is doing a lot for Cambodia. If I’d been asked to go anywhere else, I wouldn’t have gone.”

He points to the aid money Japan is giving for land mine clearance. Also the archaeological and restoration work on Angkor Wat, conducted by professor Ishizawa of Sophia University. “He’s raised the money to build us a national museum in Siem Reap to house the many artifacts he and his team have dug up out of the earth. It’s due to open in 2007.”

As to his mission here, he lays emphasis on three points. He wants to maintain good relations with Japan at a diplomatic level, while working to ensure ODA assistance is being directed where it is most needed. “As we all know, Japanese ODA is unique in that it goes through JICA, with Japanese interests at heart.”

He is committed also to promoting strong bonds in traditional culture. “With a deep mutual respect for our history and tradition, there is a strong understanding. Meeting with 10 Japanese MPs, I was surprised to learn that eight of them had visited my country. There is good feeling between us.”

He believes Japan and Cambodia share a concern for reviving and maintaining national identity. Culture, he says, becomes so important when one is suppressed or under occupation. “Cambodia is very distinctive in its language, dance and music, very different to Thailand, Vietnam and Laos, so please don’t get us mixed up.”

He believes he will have succeeded in his three-year posting if he can attract more investment to his country. Much of his energy is going into “seducing Japanese money and technology” to help Cambodia recover and take off. “We need tourists, Japanese banks, companies to place their confidence in our future.”

Fluent in English, French, Thai and, of course, Cambodian, he has started to study Japanese. “I began last week, so haven’t got very far yet.” So saying, he reeled off an impressive array of phrases that can take months to learn.

Divorced, he is thinking to bring his eldest son, aged 17 and currently living with Sothirak’s brother back home, to Japan to go to school. “But it might be hard for him to adjust. I need to talk to him, see what he would like to do.”

A former badminton champion, and very sporty, Sothirak also worries that he has gained 3 kg since April. “With so much to do, there’s little time to keep fit.”

Sothirak recalls visiting the Emperor to offer his credentials on arrival in Tokyo. “He raised nine points, the last of which was that he hoped I would get out and about to meet ordinary people.

“So,” Sothirak winds up winningly, “when shall we get together again?”