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Myanmar’s new guardian?

by Naing Ko Ko and Simon Scott

Special To The Japan Times

Myanmar’s one-time military generals, who have miraculously transformed themselves into benign politicians, really do seem to be taking remarkable steps to restructure both the domestic and foreign policy of that fragile nation.

U Thein Sein’s new administration recently released approximately 208 out of the country’s 2,000 political prisoners; unblocked the information super highway and has begun to ease media censorship in a land famous for black listing foreign reporters and imprisoning domestic ones.

He even invited charismatic democracy and traditional arch enemy of the regime Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to the presidential palace for a friendly chat and a cup of chai.

One can speculate until the cows come home about the regime’s true motives for these reforms and the cynic may be quite right in saying it has a lot more to do with the generals finally awakening to the fact that they have more to gain by playing the reformist, but that still doesn’t change the fact that changes are really happening on the ground.

A good deed no matter how small, even if done for the wrong reasons, is still better than doing no good deed at all, right?

The recent visit by Myanmar Foreign Minister U Wunna Maung Lwin to Tokyo just a week or so after the regime’s highly publicized prisoner release, clearly shows the new administration is trying to court not just Washington and other Western capitals, but also Tokyo.

The former-generals-turned-civilian administrators in Naypyidaw clearly understand the importance of economic and financial support from Tokyo and are also aware of Japan’s significant yet arguably diminishing foreign policy role in the Asia-Pacific region, especially its influence on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

It is certainly no coincidence that Maung Lwin’s visit to Tokyo quickly followed a frosting in Myanmar-China relations due to president U Thein Sein calling a halt to the construction of the controversial $3.6 billion Myitsone mega dam project by China Power Investment Corp.

While the Myanmar-China relationship continues to stall, diplomatic and economic connections between Japan and Myanmar are growing fast. Earlier this year Japan’s Vice Foreign Minister Makiko Kikuta toured the country and met with regime officials as well as Aung San Suu Kyi.

Japan’s largest business association, Keidanren, also paid an official visit to Myanmar last month to pave the way for further Japanese business involvement in the country.

It is believed that the first priority of Foreign Minister Maung Lwin’s recent pilgrimage to Tokyo to meet his counterpart Koichiro Genba is to seek Japanese endorsement for Myanmar’s bid for the ASEAN chairmanship in 2014.

Other topics under discussion were likely to have been the ASEAN-Japan Business Meeting (AJBM) to be held in Yangon this month, which Myanmar is hosting for the first time, and the ASEAN Finance and Central Bank meetings that will be held in Tokyo later this month.

The AJBM meeting will be a key opportunity for furthering economic and trade relations between the economies of ASEAN and Japan, and an opportunity for Myanmar to gain more foreign direct investment by Japanese companies and more overseas aid. Japan is currently only ranked the 12th largest FDI investor in Myanmar, but this is set to change in the near future.

Moreover, hosting the 37th AJBM will enhance the status of the Thein Sein administration on the diplomatic playing field after decades of marginalization due to the regime’s shocking human rights record.

Both governments also seem to be going out of their way to avoid diplomatic embarrassments in their pursuit of a better relationship and the recent death of 31-year-old Japanese tourist Chiharu Shiramatsu is a case in point.

Shiramatsu was raped and killed on Sept. 28 near the ancient temple city of Bagan, in Myanmar, allegedly by a motorcycle-taxi driver she had hired, yet there has been no noticeable public response to the case by Japanese officials and almost no coverage of the story in the Japanese media.

The common link that is pushing Myanmar and Japan closer together is, undoubtedly, a shared concern about China’s ever-growing influence in the region. Japan has been long worried about its diminishing soft power in Asia and it fears being further marginalized by a China that is growing stronger and richer by the day.

The stopping of the Myitsone Dam project by the new administration was a strong and symbolic rejection of China’s control over Myanmar and the deep opposition to the project by the Burmese people goes beyond the issue of the dam itself and suggests wider resentment toward China for the way it has unconditionally propped up the regime, especially by selling it arms. Since 1988 China has supplied $1-2 billion worth of weapons to Myanmar, including fighter jets, naval vessels and tanks.

Japanese policy-makers well understand the implications of a widening rift between Myanmar and China, and are paving the way for Japanese interests to step into the growing power vacuum. Yet Japan’s re-entry into Myanmar has so far been balanced and considered as Kikuta’s trip there earlier this year showed. Kikuta successfully walked a fine line by meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon for talks one day, and traveling up to Naypyidaw to pay homage to the generals in their capital the next.

On the whole Japan seems to formulating a Myanmar policy that is better thought out, more sustainable and more ethical than China’s. Although Myanmar has taken a few steps in the right direction, it is critical that countries like Japan maintain a cautious approach and not the jump the gun.

All things are relative and because so little progress was made with Myanmar, for so long, even the smallest movement forward can easily be blown out of proportion. Releasing 208 political prisoners may just be the best thing that Myanmar’s authorities have done in a long time, but it doesn’t change the fact there are nearly 1,800 political prisoners still behind bars.

Naing Ko Ko is a leader of the NZ Burma campaign, a recipient of the 2010 Amnesty International New Zealand Human Rights Defender Award and a former Burmese political prisoner. Simon Scott is a Tokyo-based journalist who writes on Japan- and Myanmar-related issues.