Priorities in Myanmar

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with Myanmar President Thein Sein on a visit to Myanmar on May 26 and pledged ¥91 billion in fresh aid to Myanmar — ¥51 billion in loans and ¥40 billion in grants — and waived another ¥190 billion in debt to facilitate the country’s democratization efforts.

The visit to Myanmar was the first by a Japanese prime minister since Takeo Fukuda visited the country 36 years ago. Japan’s move to assist Myanmar is welcome. It should give priority to enhancing the well-being of Myanmar people, not to increasing the profits of companies entering the country.

More than two years have passed since the civilian government led by Mr. Thein Sein came into office to succeed the military government after a general election. Democracy leader Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi became a member of Parliament in April 2012. Myanmar is becoming a welcome member of the international community as relations with Western countries improve.

Still, resistance to democratization efforts by the old guard within the military is strong. Given this, it is all the more important that the Thein Sein government raise people’s living standards and ensure that every layer of Myanmar society benefits from the country’s economic growth and enjoys an adequate living standard.

Japan can play an important role in improving Mynmar’s basic infrastructure such as power generation, clean water, sewage treatment and transportation.

Some 40 Japanese business leaders accompanied Mr. Abe, forming an economic mission of sorts. If he concentrates on bringing profits to Japanese companies through the export of infrastructure technologies without ensuring that Japan’s participation benefits the Myanmar people, the country’s democratization process will experience difficulties. For example, even if industrial parks are constructed, they will seem meaningless for the most part if they don’t include companies that will employ locals and produce goods for domestic consumption.

As wage levels rise in China, Vietnam and Indonesia, more attention is being paid to the economic potential of Myanmar, which is rich in natural resources and has a cheap but reliable labor force. But Myanmar’s military regimes, which have ruled for the past 50 years, failed to nurture human resources and develop the kind of legal framework needed for nation building.

As Mr. Abe and Mr. Thein Sein stressed in their joint statement, it will be important for Japan to provide technical cooperation to improve Myanmar’s legal, administrative and education systems and help it to develop human resources. Japan also should find ways to help promote reconciliation in Myanmar, which is still plagued by ethnic and religious strife.

Myanmar, for its part, needs to eradicate vested interests and corruption, and present a vision of the kind of country it wants to become and the role it wants to play in the region.