Japan’s diplomatic role in post-coup Myanmar

In this last piece of a series of blogs on the relations between Myanmar and Japan, I will discuss Japan’s diplomacy towards Myanmar and how Japan is attempting to broker a resolution to the current crisis.


Criticism against Japan’s engagement with the Myanmar regime


As described in my previous blog, the Japanese government has put pressure on the Myanmar junta since the coup through the condemnation of the junta’s brutality and the suspension of new aid programs. But Tokyo has yet neither imposed sanctions on the Myanmar military nor suspended ongoing ODA projects. In fact, Japan still has ties with the junta and prefers to remain close to Myanmar in order to protect massive investments in industries. Also, since Japan has attempted to build itself up as a competitor to China’s increasing presence in Myanmar over the past decade, it wants to keep its connections with the Myanmar regime as part of a geopolitical strategy in countering China’s influence.


In addition, military ties between Japan and Myanmar have remained strong. Although the Japanese government announced in September 2022 that it would suspend the training of Myanmar military personnel, Japan admitted Myanmar military officers to the training programs even after the 2021 coup, which had been a target of criticism from activists and rights groups.


Due to its historically deep engagement with the Tatmadaw, Japan has frequently received criticism that it is more interested in economic benefits rather than helping Myanmar to promote democracy. Additionally, Japan’s so-called ‘values diplomacy’ is often seen as a merely branding strategy since Tokyo seems to play down human rights and democracy in favour of sustaining economic ties and assuring geo-strategic advantage.


Myanmar coup leader receives Yohei Sasakawa, Japan’s special envoy for national reconciliation in Myanmar in Naypyitaw on 13 November 2021 From Myanmar Coup Leader Meets Senior Officials From China, Japan and Thailand, 2021, (Myanmar Coup Leader Meets Senior Officials From China, Japan and Thailand (irrawaddy.com)).


Japan’s problematic economics-first approach


It should be noted that the large amounts of ODA and investments that Japan has provided to Myanmar do not necessarily result in positive outcomes for the promotion of democracy in Myanmar. Rather, it is likely to have a destabilizing effect on the Myanmar society. For instance, ODA-funded projects, including the Thilawa Special Economic Zone (SEZ) and integrated transport networks, which are expected to resolve social problems, not only fail to diminish the state power, but even boost it. Thus, the recipient regime of Myanmar may see ODA from Japan as something that can enhance economic power of elites, while non-elites and minority groups only gain the fraction of the benefits, or not at all.


Also, in most cases, the local people directly affected by ODA-funded projects are excluded from the planning and implementing processes and they are often forced to accept decisions that will more likely change their lives. Therefore, Japan’s massive ODA through the economics-first approach is likely to set back rather than promote Myanmar’s democratic development.


Japan’s diplomatic role


In tackling the current crisis in Myanmar, there are two key Japanese figures who have direct access to the coup leader: Hideo Watanabe and Yohei Sasakawa.

As described in my second blog, Hideo Watanabe is a Japanese politician who has acted as Japan’s chief fixer for its economic relations with Myanmar since 1987, facilitating Japan’s return to Myanmar in 2011 through his informal connection with Thein Sein. He is also the current chairman of the Japan-Myanmar Association. However, there are no signs that he supports efforts to restore democracy in Myanmar. On the contrary, he has made some comments that seemed to even endorse the coup.

On the other hand, Yohei Sasakawa, who is the president of the Nippon Foundation and Japan’s special envoy for national reconciliation in Myanmar, has attempted to broker the settlement between the military and the shadow civilian government. In November 2021, he made a five-day visit to Myanmar and met with a senior NLD figure, representatives of ethnic political parties, and Min Aung Hlaing discussing the peace process. As he has had good relations with both Aung San Suu Kyi and Min Aung Hlaing, with past success to cease long-lasting battles between the Myanmar military and Rakhine Arakan Army in 2020, he is expected to push for mediation in Myanmar.

Aside from Sasakawa, the Japanese government is also required to take proactive actions to resolve the turmoil in Myanmar. Some foreign policy experts suggest that while keeping the halt of ongoing aid projects and the imposition of targeted sanctions as policy options, Japan should continue to engage with the Myanmar military. Additionally, some urge Japan to broker talks between the Tatmadaw and the NUG in coordination with ASEAN as Japan has still connections with both sides. The Japanese freelance journalist, Yuki Kitazumi, who was arrested and detained by the Myanmar junta after the coup, insists that the power of the Japanese government that allowed him to be released should be used to help political prisoners in Myanmar. In sum, in addressing the issues in Myanmar, Japan is expected to take two different actions. On the one hand, as a country which has maintained historically friendly relationship with Myanmar, Japan will attempt to play a mediating role in restoring democracy in Myanmar. On the other, given that Japan’s ODA and investments have thus far ended up little more than ensuring that the military remains in power, Japan should give a careful consideration about how its ODA can be used by the Myanmar regime. To this end, Japan should put more efforts on not only assisting economic development of Myanmar but also building truly open political institutions, which can lead to a political and ethnic resolution in Myanmar.