Japanese freelance journalist Yuki Kitazumi was indicted May 3 in Myanmar for spreading “fake news,” according to the country’s junta. Kitazumi was covering the anti-government protests that have roiled Myanmar since the military staged a coup there in February, and, according to Kyodo News, the coverage was “deemed to be critical of the military.”
The arrest placed additional pressure on the government of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to come out strongly against the junta and its actions. Though Japan has decried the coup and suspended new aid to Myanmar, it has not officially condemned the junta or implemented sanctions in the way other countries have. Instead, Japan says it will use the “channels” it has with the junta to do something as yet unspecified, but in at least one regard this special relationship seems to have paid off: On Thursday it was reported that Kitazumi would be released.
Last month during Diet deliberations, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, when pressed to explain how the government plans to address the crisis, cited a proverb from one of Aesop’s fables that weighs compelling someone to do something you want them to do against giving them a reason to do something you want them to do, which only seemed to increase the confusion surrounding the administration’s position.
Major media outlets think that the government will use its economic influence over the generals to push them toward negotiations with the new National Unity Government made up of civilians removed from power after the military claimed that the results of last November’s general election, which overwhelmingly supported Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, were fraudulent, despite conclusions by third party observers that they were free and fair.
In a long piece for President Online that appeared April 27, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies professor Hideaki Shinoda explained how this economic relationship may affect Japan’s diplomacy. The media gives credence to Japan’s claim that it has some sway over Myanmar’s military leaders because Japan has traditionally provided Myanmar with more development aid than any other country except perhaps China. Japan pumps more than ¥100 billion a year into Myanmar in the form of yen loans, which means it is investing in the country. Japan did the same with other Southeast Asian countries and all have developed their economies accordingly. Myanmar is the “last frontier” for development, and thus the last place where Japanese companies can exert influence. Shinoda characterizes Japanese official development assistance (ODA) as being “convoy style” — a co-ordinated mobilization of bureaucrats and businesspeople. The loans come with the condition that development projects use Japanese companies.
This situation is common with ODA. In Myanmar’s case the aid has been used for infrastructure projects that remain largely unfinished, thus requiring ever more infusions of cash that the generals, who control the economy, are unable or unwilling to pay back. In 2013, Japan not only canceled half of the ¥400 billion that Myanmar owed, but lent the country an additional ¥200 billion so that they could pay back the other half. No country, as far as Shinoda knows, has ever done such a thing. In the end, Japanese companies get paid, but it is the Japanese people who are doing the paying.
The government says this aid has been instrumental in guiding Myanmar down the path to democracy, while the rest of the world, minus those authoritarian countries who couldn’t care less about democracy, has never trusted the generals, who even after democratic changes were implemented in 2011 are constitutionally guaranteed a decision-making role. If the idea of economic pressure is to bend a regime to your will, then Japan should have leverage due to the belief that the military could not survive without that ODA, but Shinoda doesn’t think the Japanese government has the will to try and force them to do something they don’t want to do, thus Motegi’s cryptic proverb.
Japanese business interests are fairly established in Myanmar. That’s why, as Shinoda points out, some in the Myanmar community of Japan are demonstrating in front of the headquarters of the Japan Myanmar Association (JMA), made up partially of businesspeople who have forged strong relationships with the generals, as well as in front of the Nippon Foundation, which is deeply involved in Myanmar. Yohei Sasakawa, the chairman of the foundation, led the Japanese group that monitored November’s elections, which the group concluded were fair. Since the coup, however, Sasakawa has remained silent. Those from Myanmar who are living in Japan know it is these organizations rather than the foreign ministry who actually oversee the bilateral relationship.
Shinoda himself offers no remedies in his essay. He simply explains what’s in play. On April 30, four Japanese former special representatives of the United Nations held a news conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan where they explained how they formally asked the foreign ministry to work with ASEAN to negotiate with the junta as one of the “stakeholders,” thus indicating they think the generals have a claim to legitimacy. One of the former representatives, Kenzo Oshima, said that if the regime is ousted, Myanmar would be overrun by insurgents and collapse. Ruling party lawmaker Akira Amari, a top official at the JMA, also maintained during a discussion of Myanmar on satellite channel BS11 that the junta must be engaged on its own terms.
Those terms are the crux of the crisis. The junta has always looked upon Myanmar’s citizens as potential enemies of the state. That was the point made on the net news program Videonews.com by another participant in the BS11 discussion, professor Kei Nemoto of Sophia University, who said the junta never expected the level of pushback it is now getting from the people, and that its strategy has become a war of attrition. They don’t really care about gaining the people’s trust and support. All they care about is submission.
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