An historic meeting June 29 between parliamentary Vice Foreign Minister Makiko Kikuta and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon highlights Japan’s increasing willingness to look beyond its self-interest and promote democracy in the region.

Kikuta is the first high-level Japanese envoy to meet with Suu Kyi since 2002, and although the meeting only lasted an hour, it carried added symbolic weight as it was followed by Suu Kyi’s announcement that she will defy the generals and go on a controversial tour of the country.

Earlier in the week, Kikuta visited the capital Naypyidaw, where talks were held with regime leaders, including Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin.

After the military regime took power in 1962 under the rule of strongman Ne Win, Japanese diplomacy with Burma (Myanmar) largely involved working with the country’s notorious generals without giving much thought to the will or interests of the people of Burma. In fact, during the period of Ne Win’s rule, almost 40 percent of all Burma’s imports came from Japan. This foreign policy toward Burma mainly consisted of Japan giving massive amounts of official development assistance as a way to bolster its trade interests there.

From 1976 to 1990, more than 66 percent of the bilateral ODA Burma received came from Japan. Yet it is unclear how much, if any, of this aid actually moved outside regime circles and made it into the impoverished hands of the Burmese people.

Aung San, the architect of modern, independent Burma and the father of Suu Kyi; Ne Win; and many other Burmese military leaders were educated and trained by Japanese army officers in World War II. But after the bloodshed of the 1988 uprisings and ensuing military coup, control of the country shifted from the old-school, socialist, military dictatorship of Ne Win to the new, and arguably even more repressive, State Law and Order Restoration Council. At this point Japan’s relationship with Burma changed markedly.

Alongside major Western donors, Japan suspended foreign aid to Burma in response to the horrific events of ’88, and it was only resumed at a significantly reduced level. Annual average aid from Japan to Burma was just under $155 million per year between 1978 and 1988, but during the period from 1996 to 2005 that figure was down to an annual average of just over $36 million. Yet as Japan has gradually pulled back from Burma, China’s influence has deepened and now Beijing is almost single-handedly bankrolling Burma’s military thugs. Last year, Burma-China bilateral trade was worth a whopping $4.44 billion — a 53.2 percent increase on 2009 figures — and 2011 figures are expected to show the same level of growth. Thus, the junta and its cronies are no longer reliant on Japanese aid or trade for their survival. Burma has become a shantytown of China and the generals of Burma routinely pilgrimage to the politburo in Beijing while forgetting the role of Japan in the Asia-Pacific.

So, has Japanese foreign policy toward Burma failed?

The answer is no, but Japan’s foreign policymakers urgently need to formulate a new winning strategy toward Burma that offers real financial gains for taking “real” steps toward democracy. Japan still remains the world’s third largest economic power, with a growing soft power base, especially in Southeast Asia, where its pop culture is widely enjoyed. Millions of Burmese consumers still prefer high-quality Japanese cars and electronics over cheaper Chinese products. In short, Japan still has a significant unilateral and multilateral role to play Burmese and regional politics.

Japanese foreign policy can underpin the democratization and development of Burma by aligning itself with the desires of the Burmese people. History shows that the correlation of human capital and democracy underpins economic growth and development in many modern Asian states. Why not in Burma? Why not invest in the human capital of the Burma’s democratization movement and allocate optimum resources to the vulnerable people of Burma? More than any other nation, Japan has the potential to play a hands-on role in facilitating Burma’s national reconciliation.

As evidenced by Kikuta’s recent visit, Japan seems able to strike a balance that the Western democracies have been so far unable to do: avoid alienating Burma’s military junta, yet still recognize and affirm the people’s desire for democracy. Japan should step up, exercise its growing soft power as an advocate for Asian democracy,and play a unilateral role in the negotiation process. It should appoint a liaison officer who can gear up the dialogue between the military regime and the Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy, and thus work toward ending the suffering of the Burmese people.

Japan has the diplomatic strength to play a leading role in bringing about an end to human rights violations in Burma. It is still a great power player in Asia and can counterbalance China’s dominance in the region’s power structure by becoming a voice and symbol for Asian democracy and thus transcend its lagging economic growth. If Japan is willing to embrace this noble and important role, the first priority would be to endorse the International Commission of Inquiry, which was proposed by the United Nation’s Human Rights rapporteur of Burma in 2010.

Former U.N. human rights special rapporteurs professor Paulo Pinheiro and Dr. Yozo Yokota have also supported the call of an International Commission of Inquiry into Burma. Moreover, Japan has the unilateral diplomatic power to persuade the economies of Asia to promote democracy, human rights and engage with Burma’s democratic civil society. Since the DPJ took power in 2009, the people of Burma have expected Japan’s foreign policy toward their isolated nation to change and align itself with Burma’s grass-roots democratic movement.

Vice Foreign Minister Kikuta’s decision to visit Suu Kyi is a step in the right direction and hopefully signifies Japan growing role as a beacon of Asian democracy.

Naing Ko Ko is a leader of the NZ Burma campaign, a recipient of the 2010 Amnesty International New Zealand Human Rights Defender Award and a former Burmese political prisoner. Simon Scott is a Tokyo-based journalist who writes on Japan- and Burma-related issues.

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