Mr. Masahiko Koumura,
Foreign Minister
Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Kasumigaseki 2-2-1
Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 100-8919

Dear Foreign Minister Koumura:

We write regarding the January 16, 2008, Japan-Mekong Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Tokyo, which seeks to promote political, economic, and cultural cooperation in the Mekong region. Human Rights Watch urges that human rights in each Mekong country also be a priority topic at the Foreign Ministers’ Meeting and the subsequent bilateral meetings. Human Rights Watch has appreciated the opportunity to brief Japanese foreign ministry and other government officials in recent months on the human rights situations in Burma, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam.

As the single largest donor, major investor, and significant trading partner for many Mekong countries, Japan wields unparalleled leverage to positively influence human rights developments through its deepening bilateral relationships, its Economic Partnership Agreements, and through multilateral groups such as ASEAN+3 and East Asia Summit. In addition, Japan committed in 2006 to adding a new pillar to its foreign policy by placing greater emphasis on universal values like the rule of law, human rights, and democracy. Japan’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) Charter calls in principle for aid decisions to be made in part on the recipient country’s protection of basic human rights.

In many Mekong countries, human rights abuses are rampant. Governments chronically restrict freedom of expression, widely discriminate against ethnic minorities, pillage natural resources at the expense of local populations, and provide impunity for those responsible for abuses. For example, Burma’s ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) and the Burmese armed forces are brutally abusing ethnic minorities, subjecting them to forced labor, summary executions, and sexual violence. Violence and impunity continue unabated in the southern border provinces of Thailand with killings and “disappearances” by both state security forces and separatist insurgents. Vietnamese activists who launch unsanctioned publications or use the internet to disseminate opinions critical of the government are harassed, detained, and imprisoned, and hundreds of religious and political prisoners remain behind bars. Cambodian criminal syndicates comprising relatives of senior officials and elite military units continue illegal logging operations, while the rural poor lose their land to illegal concessions controlled by foreign firms, senators, and people with connections to government officials.

Yet to date Human Rights Watch is not aware that the Japanese government has publicly expressed concerns about human rights abuses in the region except for Burma. Though we welcome this public diplomacy and the suspension of one non-humanitarian aid project, we are concerned these gestures will have little impact on the generals in Burma—or on other abusive governments—unless they are sustained by regular, strong public messages and concrete actions. The failure to include human rights issues on the agenda of the 2008 Japan-Mekong Foreign Ministers’ Meeting suggests that Japan is abandoning its own commitments to promoting human rights.

Given your government’s relationship with each of the Mekong countries, and as a leading democratic power, we believe Japan can and should bring about the significant improvements by speaking out clearly and publicly on human rights abuses and by linking non-humanitarian foreign aid to respect for human rights. Quiet diplomacy in such circumstances is ineffective: unless commitments are public, rights-abusing governments cannot be held accountable. Japan must also carefully scrutinize the methods and impact of its lending and grants to ensure that they will not be misused by abusive authorities. For example, significant amounts of Japanese aid were distributed in Burma through organizations created and controlled by the Burmese government. In the fiscal year 2006, Japan gave a total of ¥26 million grants to the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), despite the USDA’s repeated harassment and intimidation of opposition political figures, including attacks on Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her political party supporters in Rangoon in November 1996 and in Depayin in May 2003. There is little difference between giving grants to the USDA and to the junta itself.

In addition, Japan should press Mekong governments to:

  • End state participation in enforced disappearances, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, and extrajudicial executions. Of particular concern is the fate of the thousands of political prisoners and hundreds of “disappearances” during the 2007 crackdown in Burma, hundreds of political and religious prisoners in Vietnam, and the individuals in Thailand’s southern border provinces held without charge or trial by Thai security forces on suspicion of connections to separatist groups.
  • End state controls on freedom of expression and information in violation of international law, including strict controls on peaceful political expression and the exchange of information in Burma and Vietnam, and the arbitrary arrest and detention as well as intimidation of human rights activists, and unlawful restrictions on peaceful demonstrations in Cambodia.
  • Prosecute and punish those responsible for serious human rights abuses, including persons implicated as a matter of command responsibility when superiors knew or should have known of ongoing crimes but failed to take action. These include high-ranking civilian and military officials and powerful individuals with de facto authority.
  • Provide proper protection and access to humanitarian assistance for refugees and internally displaced persons. International law, both customary law and the 1951 Refugee Convention, requires that no one should be returned to a place where their life or freedom would be threatened because of persecution. The groups at risk today in the Mekong region include Burmese and Hmong in Thailand, Montagnards and North Koreans in Cambodia, and North Koreans in Laos. The internally displaced include over 500,000 people who fled brutal Burmese military offensives against ethnic minorities in eastern Burma, and thousands more from Rangoon and elsewhere in the country.
  • End human rights abuses against children, including: the use of children as soldiers; the worst forms of child labor; torture of children by police; police violence against street children; poor conditions in correctional institutions and orphanages; corporal punishment in schools; mistreatment of refugee and migrant children; trafficking of children for labor and prostitution; discrimination in education because of race, gender, sexual orientation, or HIV/AIDS; and sexual violence against girls and boys.

As a leading democracy in the region, it is not only right that Japan provide ethical leadership and stand with the people in the Mekong region against state repression and abuse, it is also in Japan’s self interest to do so. The success of tax payer-funded foreign aid and genuine development in the Mekong region require that Japan press the Mekong governments to protect and promote basic human rights and the rule of law, emphasizing the links between human rights and development.

Now is the time for Japan’s foreign policy to emphasize the quality of its foreign aid and what it signifies: that Japanese diplomacy can measurably improve respect for the basic rights of ordinary people in the Mekong region and beyond. In this way can Japan distinguish itself from the policies and practices of China, which continues to write blank checks to abusive regimes, and make Japanese diplomacy a source of hope and strength for those who suffer from human rights abuses.

We appreciate your attention to these matters and would welcome the opportunity to meet with you for further discussion.

Yours sincerely,

Brad Adams
Executive Director
Asia Division