A role for Japan in Myanmar


HONG KONG — If any good is to come from the murder of cameraman Kenji Nagai on the streets of Yangon, it must be that Japan recovers its moral voice. So far there has been a small stirring of conscience and murmurs that aid may be cut as a mark of dissatisfaction with the murderous Myanmarese military regime. This is a start, but is not sufficient.

As a country with a strong Buddhist culture that understands the savagery that military rule can bring and has suffered mass killings from fire-bombings and nuclear weapons, Japan has a unique standing. As a country that then renounced war and eschewed military might to show great economic enterprise and recover from the ashes of war, Japan is singularly placed to offer moral leadership. This could be a prelude to discovering its own 21st century role in the world.

Having said that, it will require a leap of imagination that Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa and the bureaucrats of all the relevant ministries have been lacking. Perhaps Sadako Ogata, as the head of Japan’s aid organization, a former professor at a Christian university and a leading United Nations official, can remind the politicians to think of Japan’s global role as the first Asian power to join the industrialized world.

Now the omens are not propitious. The streets of Yangon are quiet. Its people are silent, cowed by troops wielding sticks and guns. Hundreds of Buddhist monks bear the scars of beatings and the memory of their colleagues killed as examples to the rest. Thousands of unarmed protesters are in detention.

Already the international hand-wringing has started over what happens after the bloodshed in Myanmar. It’s not our responsibility, is the commonest excuse. Democratic India’s foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee declared that his country has strategic national interests in doing business with the regime and it is up to the people to decide their government.

Other countries have their strategic interests: China in a client state that is a virtual economic colony; Thailand in the continuing supply of gas that keeps the lights on in Bangkok; Singapore in selling arms, communications monitoring technology — how else did Myanmar’s military shut down the Internet? — and banking services; South Korea, India, China and Malaysia, as well as U.S. and French multinationals Chevron and Total, respectively, involved in energy resources; Russia in selling a nuclear reactor; Japan in shipping, insurance and an industrial park in Myanmar; and Hong Kong businessman Li Ka-shing’s Hutchison Whampoa in a port.

A distinguished commentator suggested that “truckloads of carrots” might be the only answer to the thuggery of the junta. What, carrots as well as the billions of dollars that the military have already squandered in corrupt deals and kickbacks? It is time to take a hard reality check. Myanmar’s military has long proved itself to be oppressive and economically incompetent.

The contempt of Myanmar’s military for anyone who dares to voice criticism was demonstrated the moment that the United Nations envoy Ibrahim Gambari left the country: it began house-to-house searches in Yangon to root out opponents.

China might have worries about a condemnation based on morality, even though memories of 1989 have faded and erstwhile Western critics have reconciled themselves by saying that China has demonstrated its legitimacy by economic reforms that have brought jobs and prosperity to hundreds of millions of Chinese. This is the exact opposite of what the Myanmarese military has done in turning potentially the most prosperous country in the region into the poorest, as well as into a pariah state.

China and all Myanmar’s neighbors should worry now that the military is in danger of losing control. Clearly, the people who demonstrated showed that they have no love for their rulers. Major trading partners of a Myanmar in political lockdown might worry whether supplies would be interrupted by strikes or by sabotage caused by anger.

This is where Japan can come in — to point out the reality check that has evaded the hand-wringing columnists and political leaders. China, India, Japan, Singapore, Thailand as well as the West all have a coincidence of interests — economic and political as well as moral, in easing the grip of the military rulers.

People who advocate giving carrots should remember the truckloads of riches that the Myanmarese military has wasted in earning the reputation of the most corrupt country in the world. Yes, some of the money was lavished on the monstrous monument to military stupidity that is called Naypyitaw, the reclusive capital of the reclusive rulers. Will any more bribes make them any less stupid or better able to build an economy?

You only have to look at the crumbling buildings and decayed streets of Yangon to see how the military have turned a fine city into a virtual slum where people die for want of simple medicines.

It is not just the Myanmarese people who would be better off if the military returned to their barracks and a competent government installed. China and the rest of Asia would gain. The chances of an opposition government cutting the pipelines to turn off the lights of Bangkok or refusing to deal with China or India are remote. A prosperous Myanmar creating jobs, income, trade would be good for all the regional economies.

Opponents of sanctions are right: they don’t work. Smart sanctions are a myth because there is always a smarter guy or company who will find a lucrative loophole. But in this case, the world should be united, and Japan may be the only voice that is trusted to take a lead and get Asia and the West together to agree.

If we are a civilized planet, murders of monks and unarmed civilians must be condemned and the culprits brought to trial. It will not be easy, and junta leader Than Shwe is notoriously stubborn. But it is time for Japan to persuade the U.S., the EU to talk to China, India, Russia, Thailand and the rest of ASEAN to deliver an unequivocal message to the secluded rulers in Naypyitaw — the time for plunder is over and it is time to go.

For Japan, it could be the start of a journey of discovery of itself and the world. If it properly uses the memory of the experience of the wartime generation, Japan should not be going backward to re-create a nationalistic Japan that had too many warts to be beautiful, but going forward to offer the rest of the world the lessons of its own experience — that military might and the ability to obliterate the planet with nuclear weapons is not a mark of a great power.

Kevin Rafferty is editor in chief of PlainWords Media, a group of journalists specializing in economic development issues. He was previously in charge of Asia coverage of the Financial Times.