YANGON – Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Myanmar, the first by a Japanese leader in 36 years, could counter China’s strong influence in the Southeast Asian country, analysts say.
But the welcome mat that’s out now for Japan could get yanked back quickly if Japanese largess falls only on the already rich and powerful.
Abe’s visit, which included a meeting with President Thein Sein on Sunday, very much highlighted the quickly improving ties between the two countries since Myanmar’s end of military rule 2011.
During the summit in Naypyitaw, Abe and Thein Sein discussed introducing Japanese technology and know-how in Myanmar to help develop the infrastructure and achieve sustainable growth.
Underlining Japan’s willingness to make serious inroads in Myanmar, Abe brought with him more than 100 representatives from about 40 companies, all seeking new ties with Myanmar government and business leaders.
A big injection of money and jobs from Japanese firms would be welcomed from the top and at the grass-roots level.
“We will have economically better options in business partnerships,” Khun Tun Oo, chairman of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, an ethnic political party, was quoted as saying in the 7Day News, a Myanmar newspaper.
And Pyone Cho, a leader of the prominent activist group ’88 Generation Students, told the newspaper it is time for Myanmar to choose “more credible” investors, such as Japan.
Myanmar has long been a stronghold of Chinese business interests. Opening up to Japan could add strength to growing protests against existing Chinese investments over the lack of transparency, the adverse social impact, and growing environmental concerns.
One project many people find worrisome is a $1 billion copper mine in central Myanmar operated by China’s Wanbao Mining Ltd.
The Lapadaung Taung copper mine near Monywar has drawn continued opposition even after a severe crackdown on protesters.
It is jointly operated by Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd., the business wing of the army. The Chinese participant, Wanbao Mining, is a subsidiary of arms manufacturer China North Industries Group Corp.
Local land grabs and damage to the environment have sparked deep-seated resentment, and the mine did its reputation no good when a police crackdown on protesters in November left dozens of monks and villagers severely injured.
Rather than quelling the protest, it propelled the local opposition to new efforts.
Other activist campaigns target China’s strategic twin pipelines carrying crude oil and natural gas across Myanmar to western China.
Protesters against the 870-km oil and gas line linking Kyauk-phyu in Myanmar’s western Rakine state to Yunan in China decry land grabs and lack of safety along its route.
Perhaps even more damaging to China’s interests, just months after Thein Sein became president in 2011, he suspended the $4 billion Myitsone dam project, bowing to strong public pressure against the massive dam planned for Myanmar’s symbolic Ayeyarwaddy River.
It would have inundated as many as 766 sq. km of forested area, displaced thousands of people and submerged important historical and cultural sites.
Sun Yun, a China analyst at the International Crisis Group, wrote in the Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs last year that China has managed to overestimate its political and economic clout in Myanmar at the same time it has underestimated the anti-China sentiment among the public.
It is this growing dissatisfaction with China that analysts say Japan can exploit by making investments that bring job opportunities and increase the role of small and medium companies in the economy.
Many people in Myanmar already believe Japanese companies are more “systematic and credible” in doing business than their Chinese counterparts, which bodes a strong welcome for Japanese investors.
But others warn Japan’s welcome could quickly wear thin if investments only benefit a handful of big companies and fail to improve the lives of ordinary people.
The Myanmar news outlet Daily Eleven pointed out that Japan provided plenty of assistance to Myanmar during the time of the then-dictator Ne Win and his “socialist” government, but the bulk of the funds failed to benefit the general population in any way.
Even democracy icon and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi told reporters recently that while Japan’s “generosity” is welcome, it must also produce results.