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Japan Plays a Diplomatic Double Game on Rights in Myanmar

Despite its official condemnation of the coup, Japan continues to move towards normalizing ties with the junta

Published in: Myanmar Now
A protester holds a placard opposing Myanmar coup leader Min Aung Hlaing during a demonstration at United Nations University in Tokyo, Japan, February 11, 2021. © Photo by Viola Kam/SOPA Images/Sipa USA, Sipa via AP Images

Since the February 1 military coup in Myanmar, the junta’s security forces have killed nearly 1,300 people, arrested more than 10,000, and continue to detain nearly 7,400. The junta-controlled courts have sentenced 65 people to death, including 2 children.

Facing such violence, militias have formed around the country to oppose the junta, and target security forces as well as civilians perceived to be supporting the junta.  

Japan, one of Myanmar’s closest allies, has taken some action. Tokyo denounced the coup, while demanding an end to violence and the release of elected government officials, including Aung San Suu Kyi. The Japanese government halted new non-humanitarian Official Development Assistance (ODA) projects earlier this year while allowing existing aid projects to continue.

It also continues to cooperate with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in its efforts to press the junta to address the human rights violations, via an ASEAN Special Envoy. The Diet passed a resolution in June that condemned the coup and called for a “swift restoration of the democratic political system.”

However, Japan has stopped short of placing targeted economic sanctions on senior military and junta officials or their economic interests, as its democratic allies have done.

And now it appears that Japan is playing a double game, officially allied with governments critical of the coup, while increasingly normalizing diplomatic contact with the junta. This approach risks undermining the international community’s efforts to hold the Myanmar junta accountable for ongoing crimes against humanity in Myanmar, including torture, murder, and rape.

In May, Japan’s Foreign Ministry reportedly accepted five junta-appointed diplomats, asserting that refusing their appointment would place Japanese nationals in Myanmar at risk, and that “practical connections” with the junta are necessary. This was a major shift, considering that the Japanese government had earlier refused to accept junta-appointed diplomats since the coup on the rationale that it would risk legitimizing the military’s move to overturn the country’s democratic elections and install  the junta.

In November, Yohei Sasakawa, chairman of Nippon Foundation and Japan’s special envoy for national reconciliation in Myanmar, met with the  junta chief, Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, and discussed the “current situation and the peace process in Myanmar, as well as Japan’s assistance to the country.” Sasakawa previously voiced concerns about placing targeted sanctions on the military, claiming that doing so would “increase China’s influence.” Although Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi claimed that Sasakawa’s visit was in a personal capacity, independent local media did not interpret it as such, describing Sasakawa as “Japan’s special envoy.”

Hideo Watanabe, former cabinet minister and director of the Japan Myanmar Association, also visited Min Aung Hlaing twice this year after the coup, according to a Japan Myanmar Association member-only newsletter obtained by Human Rights Watch. Watanabe is a leading senior figure in encouraging Japanese companies to invest in Myanmar, especially in the Thilawa Special Economic Zone.

Recalling his latest trip to Myanmar in September, Watanabe described Min Aung Hlaing being “very shocked” by the June parliamentary resolution. Sympathizing with him, Watanabe described the resolution as “interventionist,” “extremely disappointing,” and “pitiful.” Then-Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi also described Watanabe’s trips as private, but it would be naive to believe that Min Aung Hlaing saw his visit as such.

In the newsletter, Watanabe claimed that Min Aung Hlaing has “trust” in him as the “window” between Japan and the military, known as the Tatmadaw. Watanabe also said he had communicated to the commander-in-chief “once again” the Japanese government’s position on a new special economic zone in Mon State, which was discussed by the Japanese and Myanmar governments before the coup. The article said that Min Aung Hlaing once again “approved” the project.

The Japanese government’s claim that high-profile Japanese figures with strong contacts in the Myanmar military or government are acting in a private capacity is not new.

In 2018, the former Japanese diplomat Kenzo Oshima was part of Myanmar’s domestic commission to investigate the military’s ethnic cleansing campaign against ethnic Rohingya in Rakhine State. Japan’s Foreign Ministry had welcomed the commission’s creation.  When Human Rights Watch presented evidence that Myanmar’s government had created similar commissions eight times since 2012 and none led to accountability for grave abuses, Foreign Ministry officials distanced themselves from Oshima, claiming that he had joined in a personal capacity.

It’s evident that ministry officials, prodded by Sasakawa and Watanabe, believe they can contain Min Aung Hlaing’s reign of terror through dialogue alone. Their collective cognitive dissonance is perhaps inevitable, considering Japan’s significant economic investments in Myanmar and an overarching concern with containing the influence of China.

But if nothing else, the Foreign Ministry should lend an ear to one of their own.

In an interview earlier this year, Japan’s former ambassador to Myanmar Tateshi Higuchi, expressed embarrassment for not being able to read Min Aung Hlaing’s “nature” during his tenure between 2014 to 2018. He advised Japan to “drop its optimism and illusory assumptions,” and asserted that Japan should prioritize saving lives and alleviating the suffering of people in Myanmar, advocating sanctions against the military.

Higuchi also disparaged the Foreign Ministry and Sasakawa’s go-to “but what about China” line, saying “the situation is not that simple” and that the “the military does not want to be in a situation in which China is the only option.”

Japan should stop playing this double game, and work with its allies to swiftly impose targeted sanctions on the Tatmadaw and its economic interests, while suspending ongoing non-humanitarian ODA programs. Sasakawa and Watanabe should also stop coddling Min Aung Hlaing, and instead use their political capital to demand the junta stop violence against protesters, respect human rights, and restore the democratic system they shredded.

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