YANGON – Relations with Myanmar have remained positive since the change in government and are set to strengthen soon, officials at the Japanese Embassy in Yangon and a nongovernmental organization there say.
With the visit of Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi to Tokyo and Kyoto this week, Ichiro Maruyama, the deputy chief of mission at the Japanese Embassy in Yangon, said he expects political or economic relations to be strengthened.
Speaking in Yangon last week, Maruyama said that ties began improving before Myanmar’s historic election on Nov. 8 last year, when Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy sealed its place in government with a landslide victory.
“Before the election, we started meeting with NLD members, mainly to (help) formulate the economic policies of the new government. We had 10 meetings with the NLD economic committees,” Maruyama said. “Based on our discussions we formulated our economic cooperation policies, our assistance policies.”
He explained that the first fully democratic election in Myanmar in decades had allowed the Japanese government to offer support to the new government.
“Our policy is that we will provide full support to the NLD government, because this government was elected by support of the majority of the people.”
While the value of exports from Japan to Myanmar in 2015 fell to $1.07 billion from $1.19 billion the previous year, imports rose to $865 million from $858 million in 2014, according to the Japan External Trade Organization.
Figures from JETRO also show that direct investment in Myanmar from Japan totaled $632 million between 1988 and last April, and that, as of April this year, 301 Japanese companies were registered with the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Yangon.
One of the major joint trade initiatives has been the creation of the Thilawa Special Economic Zone, close to the former capital Yangon. With large-scale investment from the Japan International Cooperation Agency and major conglomerates such as Mitsubishi Corp. and Sumitomo Corp., the zone has developed at a faster rate than similar Thai and Chinese economic zones elsewhere in the country.
“The NLD government told us that Thilawa SEZ is one of the successful projects in Myanmar, and told us that it should be a good sample for the development of other industrial zones,” Maruyama said.
“In September last year we opened up Zone A of the Thilawa SEZ. Zone A is around 400 hectares (990 acres). Just last week we signed to develop Zone B,” he added, explaining that 10 or 11 companies had already begun operations in Zone A, with dozens more having signed contracts.
Takehiro Umemura, the deputy head of office for the Nippon Foundation, a Japanese NGO operating in Myanmar, said his organization has also seen changes in the country since the election.
The Nippon Foundation has undertaken a series of humanitarian projects in the country in health care, education and in the distribution of essential goods. It also plays a role in Myanmar’s peace process, with Chairman Yohei Sasakawa having been appointed the government’s peace envoy for Myanmar.
“Under the previous government, there was the MPC — the Myanmar Peace Center — which coordinated programs between respective regional and state governments and also concerned ethnic armed groups. The MPC coordinated these kind of people with donors as well, but under the new government they have the NRPC (National Reconciliation Peace Center) which took over the MPC’s role, but the NRPC is still forming, so it is not really functioning yet,” Umemura said.
“There were so many non-transparent things in the last government . . . there are so many things to reform, so it takes at least one year. So now the economy is a bit down, they admit it, but this is under a transition period,” he added, in explaining why it is taking time to get fresh humanitarian projects off the ground.
However, Umemura added that the Nippon Foundation’s role has been appreciated in Myanmar, and that it has enjoyed a respect that other NGOs have not been able to earn, and that Japanese groups enjoy a special trust from people in Myanmar.
“Under the last government when Norway had a pilot project in conflict-affected areas, they (the Norwegian group) suddenly faded out. Both the state government and ethnic armed groups had a kind of bad feeling about those projects, especially by Norway. Actually, the former government had asked us ‘don’t bring theory, Western theory . . . don’t try a teacher-student relationship,’ they don’t like it, they are proud of themselves,” he said. “In our case, Myanmar knows Myanmar solutions . . . if we bring this new idea to both sides, both sides feel allergy to our support, so we decided to let both sides reach agreed solutions first.”
Umemura explained that while he had noticed people in the country were feeling more positive since the election, their living standards had not improved much.
He added that his organization will continue to provide humanitarian assistance, with the building of schools and distribution of food and nonfood essentials to conflict-hit areas, and that its work with Myanmar’s peace process will continue, adding that it had attended the recent Panglong peace conference as an observer.
Away from economics, politics and aid, Maruyama said cultural and educational exchanges between the countries have improved.
“In Myanmar, Korean pop music and Korean movies are very popular, but also we like to introduce our Japanese culture, such as Japanese pop songs and Japanese music,” he said.
“(In February) we held a big Japanese festival, it was called Pwe Taw. We invited Japanese pop singers and also we arranged the stage shows of the Japanese pop singers and introduced our Japanese songs together with Myanmar singers. Next year we will have the same festival, a big Japanese festival. Also in that festival we could see that so many people came . . . I believe that many young people enjoyed our Japanese culture,” he said.
He added that educational exchanges have also been taking place, allowing students from Myanmar to study technology in Japan, and said that the number of Japanese tourists visiting Myanmar has also increased in recent months and years, particularly since the introduction of direct flights between Tokyo and Yangon in 2012.