Japan, Myanmar make rapid strides

Tokyo proudly takes lead in rewarding oppressive nation's democratization


Following a successful bilateral meeting in April, Japan and Myanmar are already forging ahead to strengthen bilateral relations further rather than resting on their laurels.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda described his April 21 meeting with Myanmar President Thein Sein in Tokyo as “historic,” and announced that Japan will reinstate full financial assistance to the country to support its fledgling democratic transition, boost economic development and encourage national reconciliation.

Standing next to Noda after their meeting, Thein Sein, 67, told reporters the two countries have “turned a new page in (bilateral) ties.” His trip to Japan was the first by a Myanmar head of state in 28 years.

Noda also declared that Japan would cancel around 60 percent of the ¥500 billion it is owed by Myanmar, roughly ¥300 billion, and officially resume yen loans for the first time in 25 years.

Japan is the first major economic power to resume financial assistance to Myanmar since a civilian government was established in March 2011, following decades of oppressive military rule.

Senior government officials have hailed Tokyo’s active role in encouraging Naypyitaw to accelerate the ongoing democratization drive as one of its biggest diplomatic successes in recent years. Although the U.S. and EU are also moving to ease long-standing financial sanctions against the country, Japan has led the international community’s efforts to bring Myanmar back into the fold.

The government, meanwhile, was “very pleased” by Thein Sein’s comment that the two countries were “turning a new page” in bilateral relations, according to an official who helped to organize the meeting.

Former Parliamentary Vice Foreign Minister Makiko Kikuta used exactly the same remark during her visit to Naypyitaw last June, when she encouraged high-ranking government officials to enhance bilateral ties, the official said.

“What struck me the most was that Thein Sein used the same expression. It signifies that bilateral relations are really deepening and that a strong sense of mutual trust has developed,” the official explained.

During his stay in Tokyo through April 24, Thein Sein received numerous phone calls from political and business leaders, who view Myanmar’s rapid democratic and economic advance as a hugely significant — and potentially very lucrative — development in Southeast Asia.

Japan is not alone in this regard. Many countries consider Myanmar one of the few major markets in Asia yet to be tapped, and predict that its potential for growth will be enormous and highly profitable, given its 60 million-strong population, abundant natural resources and high literacy rate.

But the country’s basic infrastructure, including roads, ports and airports, remains extremely underdeveloped while development of electricity supply, water services and telecommunications has been rudimentary.

Naypyitaw is considering using Tokyo’s yen loans to develop areas around Thilawa Port, around 25 km south of Yangon, into a major industrial estate.

The two countries have already signed a memorandum of intent to compile blueprints by year’s end to develop 2,400 hectares behind the port and incorporate them into the Thilawa special economic zone. Japanese firms and government-related bodies have sent many teams to assess the plan and determine local needs.

Domestic demand for travel to Myanmar is also on the rise, and All Nippon Airways Co. announced earlier this month that it will resume regular flights this year to Yangon, the country’s largest city and commercial hub.

But although the senior government officials said Noda’s meeting with Thein Sein marked a crucial step toward building mutually beneficial relations, the real work has only just begun.

Japanese and Myanmar officials are working to select appropriate programs to be financed by yen loans, including those related to economic and financial reforms, assistance for ethnic minorities and rural development.

And despite the resurgence in bilateral ties and Japan’s resumption of generous financial support, Noda struck a note of caution after meeting with Thein Sein.

“The world is closely watching what happens from here on in,” Noda cautioned.