For many Southeast Asian countries, Japanese developmental aid may be synonymous with building bridges, roads and public facilities. But besides its infrastructure-building capacity, Japan is also boosting one of the strategic tools of diplomacy at its disposal: human resource development.
Even as fellow East Asian powerhouse China seems to have increased its economic and political clout in Cambodia and other Southeast Asian nations in recent years, Japan’s modest step to train local people is showing signs of larger, longer-term potential to deepen relations with Cambodia.
Cambodian diplomats say the Japanese government has “won” the hearts of the local people, thanks to years of involvement in the development and growth of Cambodia’s economic, political and social sectors.
“We are always grateful for the Japanese government’s support and assistance in terms of software and hardware such as human resource development and infrastructure,” said Te Eang Chheng, an official in Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, in a recent interview.
Te, deputy bureau chief of the ministry’s General Department of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, has been studying with fellow bureaucrat Doeuk Vannarith at Tokyo’s Waseda University since September 2014.
The two Cambodian diplomats were invited to Japan for a short-term internship over the summer holidays — Te with the Foreign Ministry and Doeuk with the ministry-affiliated think tank known as the Japan Institute of International Affairs, per a Cambodian request.
This kind of diplomatic training program is a first for the two countries.
“Japan was my dream place to pursue my higher education,” Te said, praising such diplomat-to-diplomat exchanges as vital for turning the working environment between his nation and Japan into a bridge for shared understanding of each other’s work ethics and views.
“If Japan can have this kind of program that invites Cambodian government officials to conduct a short-term internship in a Japanese entity, it will reap practical benefits in the long run as diplomats will know how the other side conducts business and this will help us work more closely,” Te said.
Te said if not for his time with the Japanese ministry, he would not have acquired new insights on two issues: Japan’s ties with the five Mekong countries comprising his country, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, and the role of Japan in U.N. peacekeeping operations.
The PKO issue is of mutual interest to Japan and Cambodia as Japan sent its first peacekeeping mission to Cambodia in 1992.
At the Foreign Ministry’s PKO division, Te said he learned for the first time about how Japan’s PKO law restricted the operations of the Self-Defense Forces and how Japan was criticized internationally for its “checkbook diplomacy” — a reference to supporting U.S.-led forces during the 1991 Gulf War in the form of money rather than troops.
Through the postwar years, Japan has built a name for itself in Cambodia, thanks to its support for rebuilding efforts after the civil strife there, and visible reminders such as the Tsubasa Bridge, a 2,200-meter-long suspension bridge in Neak Loeung, southeast of Phnom Penh.
On top of the “quality infrastructure building” Japan has been actively promoting in Cambodia and elsewhere in Asia, Te said his country is particularly thankful for Japan’s support in reforming his country’s electoral process.
“Elections in Cambodia have always been the cause of political unrest and political instability, so Cambodian people do not trust the local electoral system made by ourselves. Every election result has been criticized and people put the blame on the system,” Te said.
“Lacking IT-supported equipment, Cambodia finds it hard to make accurate and reliable voter registrations and voter lists which are acceptable for all parties,” he said.
He noted that Japan’s information technology provides a way to resolve issues by eliminating or reducing redundant names, adding missing names, and correcting other errors that usually cause unreliable election outcomes.
Gearing up for future elections, including the general poll in 2018, a key focus is credibility.
In Cambodia, a new election body has been introduced as designed to be “neutral,” help end repeated disputes among political parties and prevent post-election deadlock.
During a recent news conference in Tokyo, Kem Sokha, a member of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, said he hopes Japan, through its technical assistance, will play a role in ensuring a “fair, free and democratic election” and a “smooth transition of power” as sought by the majority of youth.
Carrying hopes that Japanese education and training will help them when they return to Cambodia, the number of funded exchange students from the Southeast Asian country to Japan has been increasing. Government data show that since 1992, there have been about 1,000.
Doeuk said he wants to see more of his compatriots travel to Japan to study and learn from the world’s third-largest economy about nation-building. He hopes people from other sectors including trade, finance and agriculture can participate in similar internships like he and Te have been able to do.
“Human resource development is the utmost important thing we urgently need,” Douek said. “It is not just about building roads, but training people on how to sustain such roads.”