Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi is set to kick off a five-day visit to Tokyo on Tuesday, her first trip to Japan since the National League for Democracy took power by landslide in the election last November.
The visit will provide ample opportunity for Tokyo to improve its ties with Suu Kyi, who serves concurrently as Myanmar’s state counselor and foreign minister, experts said. In the past, she had slammed Tokyo for providing economic assistance to the country, which was at the time ruled by the military.
“Suu Kyi may have had some uncomfortable feelings toward Japan in the past, but now the environment is ready for Japan and Myanmar to join hands to seek practical benefits,” said Toshihiro Kudo, a professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo and a noted expert on Myanmar affairs.
“Suu Kyi was put under house arrest by the military government for years,” Kudo noted. “But Japan, trying to improve people’s lives, had provided economic assistance to the country” despite repeated pleas by Suu Kyi to halt the aid.
But since assuming power, Suu Kyi has taken pragmatic approach, putting aside her quarrels with military leaders and “crony” tycoons who made a fortune during the junta era and prioritizing economic development instead.
Reports say Suu Kyi has maintained relatively friendly ties with the former junta leaders who effectively imprisoned her for more than 14 years. She has also pledged to refrain from targeting the crony tycoons.
These policies are likely to help Prime Minister Shinzo Abe build stronger links with Suu Kyi and Myanmar at the summit in Tokyo, Kudo said.
Suu Kyi’s top priorities have long been to promote the democratization of Myanmar and to peacefully resolve conflicts with its armed ethnic minority groups.
Since taking power, however, she has apparently come to believe that a fruitful economic environment — and compromises with the still-powerful military — are necessary to pursue those goals, Kudo said.
As an example of this new pro-business approach, Kudo pointed out remarks she reportedly made at an Oct. 22 meeting with business leaders in Myanmmar’s administrative capital, Naypyitaw.
“Our government noticed particular criticism from the public that the economic growth of the country is slowing,” Suu Kyi was quoted by Reuters as saying at the meeting.
“I would like to stress that no one but our government is more eager to achieve progress, because economic development would help us establish democratic institutions here,” she was quoted as saying.
Noriyuki Osada, research fellow at Institute of Developing Economies in the city of Chiba, believes Suu Kyi’s visit to Japan is part of Myanmar’s traditional “balancing,” or multi-directional, approach to diplomacy.
Her trip to Japan follows recent high-profile trips to Thailand, China, India and the United States to sell Myanmar as an investment destination.
“I think she is trying to get along with both China and Japan at the same time” to win investment and economic assistance from Asia’s two economic giants, Osada said.
But he also pointed out that Suu Kyi’s power base is overwhelming made up of ordinary people. If she overly favors the military and big business in promoting development projects while sacrificing the interests of ordinary people, especially ethnic minority groups — it could seriously damage the legitimacy of her government, Osada said.
“Right now people enthusiastically support her, so there are no problems,” Osada said. “But this question may arise in the future, over the next five or ten years.”
Suu Kyi’s trip to Japan takes place after the U.S. lifted its remaining economic sanctions on Myanmar earlier this month.
The trip should give Japanese businesses fresh momentum to advance further into Myanmar, the National Graduate Institute’s Kudo said.
The U.S. had Myanmar under sanctions for nearly two decades but began slowly lifting them in 2012. U.S. President Barack Obama had all sanctions lifted on Oct. 7, a month after hosting Suu Kyi in Washington.
The move allowed about 100 Myanmar companies and individuals who enjoyed cozy ties with the junta to conduct business with U.S. firms. Many Japanese firms had also avoided doing business with the blacklisted entities.
Myanmar has a population of 51.4 million, and is blessed with an abundance of natural resources, including oil and natural gas.
Surrounded by China, India and Thailand, it is regarded as “the last frontier” in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
The junta began instituting reforms to open its doors to foreign cash in 2011, sparking a Japanese investment boom there the following year. But the revelation that many parts of the country lack basic infrastructure, including reliable power supplies, highways and airports, as well as proper legal systems, has dampened the initial enthusiasm, according to Kudo.
“It’s still a developing country, and you face lots of problems when you start businesses there,” he said. “Few (Japanese) firms are making big profits there yet.”
Still, these obstacles are unlikely to present long-term problems for the Japanese.
“Myanmar has great potential, so I think many business people expect much from the country,” Osada said. “The enthusiastic boom has slowed mainly because of lack of social infrastructure and legal institutions.”