Scholars split over sanctions

Tokyo pressured to take action despite diplomatic risks

by Jun Hongo and Setsuko Kamiya

Despite their long-standing good relations, the violence recently used to quell demonstrations in Myanmar that caused the death of Japanese video journalist Kenji Nagai has upped the pressure on Tokyo to impose sanctions on the military junta, experts say.

Kei Nemoto, a foreign studies professor at Sophia University in Tokyo, favors imposing economic sanctions on Myanmar to underline Japan’s displeasure with the military government’s use of violence.

“The junta may consider sanctions by Japan irrelevant, but we need to send a clear message to them,” the expert on Myanmar’s history and politics said, adding that a strong gesture would be consistent with the response of the international community.

“Although its unlikely that the Foreign Ministry will agree, I think it has come to the point where the Japanese ambassador in Myanmar should be recalled to Japan (as a sign of protest),” Nemoto said.

Unlike the United States and some European countries, Tokyo has not imposed serious economic sanctions on Myanmar to avoid isolating it from the international community.

According to the Foreign Ministry, Japan’s exports to Myanmar totaled ¥26.56 billion, while imports from the country came to ¥12.64 billion in 2006. Japanese grants to Myanmar were worth ¥1.35 billion, while technical assistance was worth ¥1.73 billion in the same year.

While maintaining economic ties, the government says it has urged Myanmar to promote democratization. But after the military government put Nobel Peace Prize-winning prodemocracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest again in May 2003, Tokyo stopped providing new official development assistance to the Southeast Asian country, except for urgent and humanitarian assistance projects, including construction of hospitals and schools in rural areas.

Suu Kyi’s house arrest also triggered more Myanmar people in Japan to apply for refugee status. They are now the largest group of foreign nationals seeking political asylum.

According to the Justice Ministry, 626 Myanmar nationals applied for refugee status last year, compared with 38 in 2002.

In contrast, the ministry accepted only 28 people from Myanmar and six other asylum-seekers in 2006. In the same year, another 33 people from Myanmar were also given official residency permits due to “humanitarian considerations” although they were not officially recognized as refugees like the others, the ministry said.

Lawyer Shogo Watanabe, who represents many Myanmar asylum-seekers in Japan, said the current situation there may push the Japanese government to grant more Myanmar nationals either refugee status or official residency permits.

“In the least, the government must not decide to send people who are seeking protection here back to (Myanmar) under the current situation,” he said. “I don’t think they actually can.”

Watanabe said the Japanese government should strongly reproach the Myanmar junta and even try to take the international initiative to get the military government to move toward democratization of the country.

“The junta has put their hands on monks, who are untouchables (in their Buddhist culture), which showed that they will do anything to remain in power,” Watanabe said. “But I think the people have stood up with a strong determination (to fight against the military regime.) And they won’t stop now because they’re afraid they may not have the chance to move toward democracy again for another 19 years, or even forever.”

In Watanabe’s opinion, the protesters will not easily give up because they have been oppressed by the junta for so long.

On the other hand, Toshiro Kudo, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Developing Economies at the Japan External Trade Organization, opposes isolating Myanmar’s government by imposing strict economic sanctions, calling for continuing dialogue instead.

An expert on Asian diplomacy, Kudo said such sanctions will not improve the situation because Myanmar would simply rely on its connections with China, India and Thailand. Japan’s decision to cut economic ties with the country will hurt the civilians the most and break its already tenuous connection with the junta. “Once the junta judges that Japan is no different from the U.S., it will close all doors of negotiation with Japan,” Kudo said.

The close relations between Myanmar and Japan are based on history, he added, noting that Japan played a role during World War II in putting the country on the path to independence.

“The death of a Japanese in Yangon is a very serious matter, but I believe it would be wise not to cave in to pressure from the international community and impose economic sanctions,” Kudo said.

Meanwhile, prodemocracy activists from Myanmar sought immediate help from the Japanese government to stop the killings by the junta. It is imperative that the international community apply pressure to achieve peace in their country, they said.

“Japan has a very important role to play,” said Tin Win, a former member of the National League for Democracy in Myanmar. “It is the second-richest country (in the world) and the most powerful democratic country in Asia. I want Japan to become more responsible in terms of human rights.”

Speaking at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo, Win, who was granted refugee status in 1999, called on Japan to escalate its economic sanctions against the military government in Myanmar. As many as 100 monks could have fallen victim to the military during recent demonstrations, he alleged, noting that the junta often carries out killings “secretively and systematically.”

Sanctions and punishment are the only effective methods for bringing down the junta, the activist said. Japan, he added, should not “close the door and dream that the world will be safer tomorrow.”