Foreign-policy makers are relieved — at least for now — that their long-standing policy of “constructive engagement” toward Myanmar survived its biggest potential challenge with Thursday’s release of prodemocracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from 12 days of effective house arrest.
Had the incarceration of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate dragged on for much longer, Japan would have been forced to review its approach toward the impoverished Southeast Asian country, which has hitherto been much softer than that of the United States or Europe.
On Sept. 2, the military forcibly returned Suu Kyi to her Yangon home, ending a nine-day roadside protest that had begun when security forces stopped her car just outside the capital.
Her subsequent confinement in her residence further stoked a barrage of international criticism of the Myanmar military junta — which now refers to itself as the State Peace and Development Council, or SPDC — especially from the U.S. and other industrialized European countries.
Despite Suu Kyi’s earlier-than-anticipated release, it is too early for Japanese foreign-policy makers to be jubilant and optimistic about the smooth continuation of their constructive engagement policy toward Myanmar.
At a Friday press conference, Suu Kyi challenged the military junta to prevent her from traveling outside the capital. “I shall be traveling outside Rangoon (Yangon) within the next 10 days for party organizational work,” she said.
Prior to her most recent attempt to leave the capital, Suu Kyi had made similar efforts in the past five years that were also unsuccessful.
The military took power in a 1988 coup in Myanmar. It nullified the results of a 1990 election, in which Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, or NLD, won a landslide victory. Suu Kyi was released from nearly six years of house arrest in 1995.
The SPDC claimed that Suu Kyi was not under house arrest in the most recent incident as her family members and doctors were allowed to visit her.
But Japan, the U.S. and Europe believed that the action taken against her was effectively the same as what occurred during the 1989-1995 period. They said that during Suu Kyi’s 12 days of effective house arrest, their diplomats stationed in the capital had not been permitted to meet her.
Immediately after Suu Kyi was placed under effective house arrest, the U.S. and the 15-nation European Union issued special statements harshly condemning the SPDC. In a marked contrast, however, Japan refrained from issuing any such special statement concerning Myanmar.
While calling for improvements in the protection of human rights and democratic principles in the country, Japan has taken a different course from the U.S. and Europe when dealing with Myanmar. Instead of ostracizing it internationally, Japan has pursued a policy of “constructive engagement” to bring about favorable changes.
Japan has, however, restricted fresh economic aid for Myanmar to “humanitarian” projects since the 1988 military coup.
“Japan refrained from issuing a special statement condemning the current situation in Myanmar. That’s because we firmly believe that driving its military junta further into a corner will only be counterproductive,” a senior Foreign Ministry official said, requesting anonymity.
“Sanctions will not succeed in bringing about favorable changes to Myanmar partly because it has a long history of closing itself to the outside world and partly because it has basically taken a policy of ensuring self-sufficiency in food,” the official said.
The official added, however, that Japan asked the SPDC through diplomatic channels to release Suu Kyi from effective house arrest immediately and let the NLD engage in free activities as a legal political party.
In response to the Japanese request, the SPDC gave an assurance that Suu Kyi’s effective house arrest would only be a temporary measure.
The SPDC’s recent actions have given the impression that the political situation in Myanmar has not improved — or has even deteriorated — since Suu Kyi was released from house arrest five years ago.
At her meeting with Foreign Minister Yohei Kono in New York on Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright asked for Japan’s cooperation to stop the Myanmar military junta from harassing and restricting Suu Kyi’s activities.
Albright told Kono that Japan has a particularly important role to play in Asia. These remarks by Albright, an ardent personal admirer of Suu Kyi, were interpreted as a thinly veiled request for Japan to abandon its constructive engagement policy toward Myanmar and follow the U.S. and European example.
“We believed — or wanted to believe — that Ms. Suu Kyi would be released from effective house arrest before long. Therefore, we had no plan to review our Myanmar policy,” one government source said.
The source acknowledged, however, that had Suu Kyi’s effective house arrest dragged on for a significantly longer period, a change in Japan’s Myanmar policy would have proved unavoidable.
The source said that Japan will continue preparing for the second meeting of a joint Japan-Myanmar panel on reform of Myanmar’s economic structure, scheduled for the end of the year in Tokyo, and will also continue to explore the possibility of extending fresh official economic aid for humanitarian projects under its current Myanmar policy.
The joint panel, which consists of both government officials and private-sector experts from the two countries, was set up to help Myanmar promote economic reform. The panel held its inaugural meeting in Yangon in June.
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