As political turmoil engulfed Myanmar earlier this month, Japan and its Group of Seven peers rushed to condemn the coup, urging the military to restore the nation's democratically elected government and release State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi immediately.
But unlike Washington, Tokyo has been cautious about implementing sanctions on the Myanmar regime to avoid jeopardizing the relationship it has built with military leaders over decades and out of fear that excessive punishment could drive Myanmar closer to China.
To parry criticism of complacency, Japan has been touting its diplomatic channel with the military as a potential tool to turn the volatile situation around and put the country back on the road to democracy.
While Japan does have indisputably solid ties with the military, cultivated primarily through massive economic aid packages, Foreign Ministry officials familiar with internal deliberations, as well as experts on Japan-Myanmar ties, give mixed assessments on the effectiveness of Tokyo's efforts.
If Japanese diplomats fail to convince world leaders that they can use their connections to improve the situation in Myanmar, Tokyo may be compelled to align itself with Western nations and take drastic punitive actions like suspending economic aid, potentially worsening bilateral ties and hampering Japanese businesses operating in the Southeast Asian nation.
The Myanmar military overthrew the country's civilian government on Feb. 1, the day when a parliamentary session reflecting November's election results was supposed to begin. Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won over 80% of the seats while the pro-military Union Solidarity and Development Party captured fewer seats than in the 2015 parliamentary elections, stirring dissatisfaction among top generals.
Shortly after the seizure of power, the military detained Suu Kyi and other high-ranking lawmakers. Now, weeks later, clashes between protesters and the military are continuing to intensify and are becoming increasingly violent.
Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi has repeatedly released statements expressing “grave concern” about the coup and demanding Suu Kyi’s immediate release. He also took part in a joint statement with foreign ministers of G7 countries rebuking the insurrection.
Despite Motegi's stance, Japan appears reluctant to turn to sanctions or the withdrawal of aid, at least for the time being. The Asahi daily on Thursday reported that the Foreign Ministry is contemplating a suspension of new official development assistance (ODA) projects but would not characterize such a move as a “sanction.” Except for China, which does not disclose financial aid figures but is known to supply massive amounts of aid to the country, Japan is Myanmar's largest source of economic assistance, meaning any halt of aid would be a considerable blow for the country and its military.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato disputed the Asahi report in a briefing Thursday morning.
The Foreign Ministry says it is sticking with a wait-and-see approach and its officials have repeatedly underscored Japan’s diplomatic channels with the Myanmar military, known as the Tatmadaw, to stabilize the situation in the coup’s aftermath.
“Japan has strongly endorsed a democratization process in Myanmar and provided aid to support those developments, and we deeply regret actions that reverse the process,” Motegi said on Feb. 5. “Japan is perhaps a nation among the international society that has various communication channels with Myanmar, including the military. … We’ll be urging the military to reinstate a democratic political system as soon as possible.”
Tomoyuki Yoshida, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, revealed in a Feb. 10 news conference that Tokyo had already begun contacting officials in Myanmar, including those in the military apparatus. Motegi himself had met with Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, who is said to be the mastermind behind the coup, in October 2019 in Tokyo and in August of last year in Naypyidaw.
The Foreign Ministry and diplomatic experts agree that Japan has robust ties with the military, perhaps the strongest among the G7 countries. But there are no signs that Japan's diplomatic efforts have spurred the military to alter its course.
“Even if Japan had sent representatives to convey the statement’s message, (the Myanmar side) would have given no heed to it,” said Kei Nemoto, a professor specializing in modern Myanmar history at Sophia University in Tokyo. “And even if Japan made clear its own position along with the message — which would be for the military to lift the state of emergency, release (detained lawmakers) immediately and respect last year’s election results — the military wouldn’t accept any of it.”
One senior Foreign Ministry official acknowledged it would be “difficult” to yield immediate tangible results through diplomacy.
Still, other countries have high hopes that Japan can use its ties to yield positive results, the official said. Motegi and his U.S. counterpart, Antony Blinken, agreed in a Feb. 11 teleconference to closely work together on the political crisis.
The U.S. encouraged Japan to use its links as leverage, as Washington doesn’t have such robust ties with the Myanmar military, and the two countries have been able to divide up their respective roles in dealing with the crisis, according to another official with direct knowledge of the diplomatic call.
Nemoto, though, tamped down American expectations for Tokyo's diplomatic efforts.
“There may be some expectations for Japan to exercise the influence it has won, even a little bit, to placate the military,” the professor said. “But the U.S. understands that even if Japanese officials are able to meet military officials quickly, the military would not acquiesce to the G7 demands. I expect that the U.S. will continue to gradually ramp up economic sanctions on its own.”
Myanmar has long been politically unstable and has been marred by decades of civil war between the military and insurgent groups.
Nevertheless, Japan actively engaged with the country’s military as well as Suu Kyi both politically and economically to enhance its presence in the region.
Japan’s ties with the Southeast Asian country stretch back to before World War II when Gen. Aung San, the father of Suu Kyi, secretly gained support and received military training from the Japanese army as the nation struggled to declare independence from the U.K.
Both countries, however, have different historical interpretations of that time period. Citing its assistance to the general who then formed the Burma Independence Army (BIA), a precursor to the modern-day military, Japan touted its role in helping the nation liberate itself from the U.K. through military training and supplies of weapons.
On the other hand, Myanmar used to see the Japanese as an occupier during the war and prides itself on its history of rebelling against Japan toward the end of WWII, establishing a narrative, now deeply ingrained in the military, that Myanmar defied both British and Japanese imperialism.
Both countries are aware of the divergent narratives but willfully overlook the issue for the sake of bilateral ties, which net Myanmar economic aid and Japan an amicable neighbor, Nemoto said.
“After securing independence, Myanmarese military officials paid lip service (to Tokyo) saying something like, ‘we’re able to be independent because of Japan,’” he said. “This is because the Myanmar side wants more wartime reparations and more ODA (projects) by wheedling Japan, and Japan can’t recognize (the praise) as lip service, and believes that the country is pro-Japanese.”
Even after the nation's postwar civilian government was overthrown in a 1962 military coup led by Gen. Ne Win, Tokyo trusted that the general, who was among the earliest members of the BIA that Japan had helped to found, would lead a government that was pro-Japan.
Ne Win’s military junta, which held onto power until 1988, was the subject of criticism from the West for its violations of human rights, but Japan was unwilling to risk sabotaging relations for the sake of economic and political interests.
A second military junta that took over from 1988 violently suppressed Suu Kyi’s 8888 Uprising that same year and refused to recognize the victory of her NLD in the 1990 election. Under intensifying pressure from abroad, Japan was forced to adjust its silent approach and become an intermediary between the West and Myanmar while emphasizing human rights and democracy.
The junta eventually held a referendum to establish a hybrid civilian-military Union Government in 2008 and handed down power to the new government in 2011. Japan, seeing the move as a positive step toward democracy, showered the country with billions of yen in aid.
After Suu Kyi took office following a 2015 election, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and senior Foreign Ministry officials held meetings with both her and the military's senior general to maintain strong ties with both sides. Young Myanmarese military officers have even spent time studying in Japan through an exchange program with the National Defense Academy.
The Japanese government not only agreed to cancel debts that Myanmar owed, it also offered new loans. Meanwhile, Japanese businesses, seeing potential for economic growth, flocked to the country. In 2016, Japan announced an ￥800 billion public-private ODA and investment package through 2021, and the Foreign Ministry set aside ￥189.3 billion as ODA for Myanmar in fiscal 2019 alone.
The February coup, therefore, was a devastating, even humiliating, blow to Japan’s decades of investment that it had believed to be integral to Myanmar’s development and transition toward democracy.
Keeping Beijing in check?
Stressing that human rights are a central issue for the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden, the U.S. Treasury Department earlier this month proceeded with sanctions against 10 individuals and three entities connected to the military who were deemed responsible for the coup.
By describing the situation as a coup, the U.S. had no choice but to take a hard line, as the country's Foreign Assistance Act mandates that Washington halt assistance to any government overthrown by a military. Japan does not have any such legislation.
But the sanction-only approach could lure the unstable country into the waiting arms of China, which is keen to expand its influence in the region.
One of the reasons that the Japanese Foreign Ministry is apprehensive about cutting off ODA immediately is the possibility that China may attempt to fill the void and flex its muscles there through economic aid. Although Myanmar's military leadership does not necessarily trust China wholeheartedly, it could embrace the communist giant for survival.
Japan didn't have such concerns in 2003, when it downsized its ODA assistance to Myanmar, but China’s strength “grew dramatically in the last four to five years,” according to one Foreign Ministry official.
Tokyo, at least on the surface, does not seem unnerved by the possibility of being pressed by Washington to apply economic pressure.
“The U.S. is aware that things aren’t that simple,” said a senior Foreign Ministry official in mid-February. “The U.S. is well aware that new situations are emerging geopolitically in Asia and in the Indo-Pacific region and wrestling with its approach,” the official said, alluding to China.
But by bringing up China, the Foreign Ministry could be looking to justify its diplomacy with Myanmar, Sophia University's Nemoto said.
The Foreign Ministry, Nemoto said, believes that if Japan had teamed up with the U.S. and opted for sanctions, the military would have obstinately opposed any intervention from Japan and could have sided with China.
"I think such an interpretation — the conviction that 'the way we have dealt with Myanmar for the last 30 years or so has been right' — is significantly at play when senior Foreign Ministry officials boast that they have a strong diplomatic channel,” Nemoto said.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.