(Tokyo) - The Japanese government should publicly urge the foreign ministers of Burma, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam attending the Japan-Mekong Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Tokyo on January 16 to address human rights concerns in these Southeast Asian countries, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to Japanese Foreign Minister Masahiko Koumura.

“We’re disappointed that human rights issues aren’t even on the agenda of the Japan-Mekong Foreign Ministers’ meeting,” said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “As a major donor, Japan shouldn’t remain silent on chronic abuses of the right to freedom of expression, rampant impunity, and a host of other human rights violations in the Mekong countries.”

Human Rights Watch urged Japan, a major investor and significant trading partner to the Mekong countries, to wield its leverage to improve human rights in the region by publicly discussing these issues.

Human Rights Watch also encouraged Japan to rethink its methods and evaluate the impact of its foreign aid to ensure that they are not misused by abusive authorities. For example, significant amounts of Japanese aid were distributed in Burma through organizations created and controlled by the Burmese military government, such as the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA). In the fiscal year 2006, Japan gave a total of 26 million yen (US$240,000) in grants to the USDA despite that organization’s repeated harassment and attacks on opposition political figures, including Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy supporters.

“Japan has an opportunity at the Mekong foreign ministers meeting to show that it really has made human rights a pillar of its foreign policy,” said Richardson. “The Japanese government needs to back this up by ending its silence on human rights abuses in Burma and other Mekong countries.”