Japan’s approach to Myanmar

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reportedly plans to visit Myanmar in late May. The last time a Japanese prime minister visited the county was in 1977 when Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda visited then Burma.

Mr. Abe should consider what kinds of concrete contributions he should make to help advance democratization in Myanmar. His planned visit follows the recent visit to Japan by Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of Myanmar’s largest opposition party, the National League for Democracy. She left Japan April 19 after a week’s stay.

Mr. Abe will also try to deepen economic relations between Japan and Myanmar by helping improve the country’s infrastructure through official development assistance. One of the purposes of Japan’s move is to counter China’s growing influence in the country. While this strategic approach is important, Japan needs to make sure that infrastructure construction will lead to enhancement of people’s lives in the country.

Mr. Abe, who met with Ms. Suu Kyi on April 18, became the first Japanese Prime Minister to do so. He expressed his readiness to assist her country’s efforts for democratization by saying that Japan would like to help Myanmar in its effort to build a future Myanmar. He also said that in addition to improving Myanmar’s infrastructure through ODA, Japan would like to increase its business enterprises’ investment in the country.

Ms. Suu Kyi specifically requested that Japan help promote vocational training and agronomy education in Myanmar. As Mr. Abe said, it will be necessary for Japan to help Myanmar with its reform efforts so that the progress of democratization and reconciliation in the country will lead people to feel an increasing degree of affluence. If Myanmar people feel that Japan’s assistance is only increasing corporate interests, it will not be conducive to really strengthening the relationship between Japan and Myanmar.

During her stay in Japan, Ms. Suu Kyi made it clear that she will aim to become president of Myanmar by winning a general election to be held in 2015. She expressed her determination to tackle the task of changing the country’s constitution, which prohibits a Myanmar person who married a foreigner — Ms. Suu Kyi married a Briton — from becoming president.

For a revision of the constitution, the support of three-quarters or more of the parliament members is required. Securing such support is extremely difficult because a quarter of the parliament seats has been set aside for military officials.

These days, Ms. Suu Kyi faces criticism from some people for her tactic of cooperating with the government and the military for the sake of advancing democratization.

If Japan commits itself to further democratization of Myanmar, it will have to consider how to persuade Myanmar’s current regime to revise the constitution — that is, to drop the provision obviously designed to prevent Ms. Suu Kyi from becoming president.