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The “Special Relationship” between Myanmar and Japan after Ne Win

by Gota Seto

In this second piece of a series of blogs on the relations between Myanmar and Japan, I reflect on the history between the two nations from 1988, the end of Ne Win’s regime, to the period of political reforms after 2011.

Military regime from 1988 to 2011

As described in my previous blog, Japan had committed deeply to sustaining the special relationship with Myanmar for decades after the Pacific War. However, the advent of the military government under SLORC in 1988 significantly changed this relationship.

In 1988, the vigorous protest demanding an end to one party rule took place across Myanmar. Although the nationwide protest successfully led to Ne Win’s resignation in July 1988, it triggered the military takeover two months later with the establishment of SLORC, whose bloody crackdown on civilians led to tougher sanctions from the West. As Myanmar’s economic prospects waned after 1988 and Tokyo received strong pressure on democracy and human rights issues from the West, particularly the United States, Japan significantly reduced its ODA and investment.

Having much pressure from the West, Japan embarked upon the ODA policy change in the early 1990s. In 1992, Japan introduced ODA which placed emphasis on democracy and human rights.

This was a significant shift in Japan’s ODA from economic focus to the development of political systems and human capital in recipient countries. As a result, Japan’s ODA to Myanmar, a country where human rights abuses were rampant, declined considerably.

Another factor of Tokyo’s weaker engagement with Myanmar was Ne Win’s resignation from the government. While Japan established very close relations with the Ne Win regime, the new SLORC junta had few ties to Japan. Above all, the new military government was willing to admit China to hold a dominant economic position in Myanmar. Seizing upon this opportunity, China filled the gap created by Japan’s ODA suspension and West’s sanctions. Consequently, China replaced Japan as Myanmar’s most important trading partner and largest source of imports. For instance, Japan occupied almost 40% of Myanmar’s total imports during the Ne Win period, with China only accounting for less than 5%. But in 2002, Japan’s share declined to less than 5% whereas that of China rose dramatically to nearly 35% in 2006.

Although Tokyo’s engagement with Myanmar became constrained due to the above factors, Japan did not impose economic sanctions on Myanmar. Rather, it allowed its domestic companies to continue to trade with and invest in Myanmar, along with the provision of humanitarian assistance. It is then often argued that Tokyo embraced a policy which was between the policies of China and the West, sometimes called “cautious engagement” with “carrots (ODA)”. That is, if the junta initiates political reforms, Japan is ready to resume massive ODA. Tokyo also supported Myanmar’s membership in ASEAN despite the US opposition.

Japan’s informal conduits to Myanmar also played a key role in maintaining the special relationship during the SLORC/SPDC period. Most notably, Watanabe Hideo, a former Minister of Post and Communications and Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary in Nakasone administration in 1987, was tasked by the prime minister Nakasone to sustain the close informal connection with Myanmar even after the West’s tougher policy. He attempted to keep the unofficial channel alive, and in fact, his informal connection with Thein Sein facilitated Japan’s return to Myanmar later in 2011.

Japan's re-engagement

In 2011, when the Myanmar government initiated a series of significant political and economic reforms, Japan responded by beginning to expand its economic assistance and encouraging Japanese international firms to invest more in Myanmar. It is said that no country responded more enthusiastically to Myanmar’s reforms than Japan, for Japan offered an unprecedentedly high percentage of debt relief and new large-scale ODA to Myanmar. The absence of the US objections following the reforms was also a significant factor for Japan to emerge again as a key player in Myanmar. Notably, in the Japanese fiscal year 2012, Myanmar was Japan’s largest ODA recipient for the first time.

During the second Abe administration, which commenced in December 2012, the diplomatic relations between Myanmar and Japan gained momentum. Prime Minister Abe visited Myanmar in May 2013 accompanied by a large delegation of top Japanese companies, and unveiled massive economic assistance to Myanmar, including yen loans, which were suspended since 1987. During his visit, he also met Aung Sun Suu Kyi, representing Tokyo’s support for Myanmar’s democratization. The Myanmar government then mentioned historical friendly relations between the two countries.

In addition to financial and economic assistance, the Abe administration appointed Sasakawa Yohei, president of the Nippon Foundation, as Japan’s special envoy for national reconciliation in Myanmar in 2013. Since then, Sasakawa has been acting as a key informal channel between Myanmar and Japan, providing humanitarian assistance and facilitating national reconciliation among ethnic groups. In 2020, his intervention helped to cease long-lasting fighting between the Myanmar military and the Rakhine Arakan Army.

As has been described, while Myanmar-Japan relationship went through low times during the SLORC/SPDC period, Japan’s consistent non-sanction policy and its informal conduits to Myanmar contributed to sustaining the historically friendly relationship between the two nations. After Myanmar’s democratic reforms, Japan’s substantial economic interests and its special envoy for Myanmar led by Sasakawa facilitated the revival of the “special relationship”.

Gota Seto is a Master of International Relations student at the University of Melbourne

Picture From Japan-Myanmar Summit Meeting, 2013, ( Copyright Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan.


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