Why is Japan not taking a firm stand against Myanmar junta? | Asia | An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 01.04.2021

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Asia

Why is Japan not taking a firm stand against Myanmar junta?

The Japanese government is attempting to encourage the military generals to end the violence against pro-democracy protesters but is reluctant to resort to sanctions.

Burmese residing in Japan protest against the military coup in Myanmar

Burmese residing in Japan protest against the military coup in Myanmar

The Japanese government is continuing its diplomatic approach to the worsening political violence in Myanmar, although there are stirrings of unrest at home over Tokyo's failure to take a firmer line with the military junta that seized power from the democratically elected government in February.

On Wednesday, Tokyo announced that it will withhold new economic assistance to Myanmar in order to pressure the military regime to halt its violence against civilian protesters demanding a return to democracy.

Yet, Tokyo remains committed to engagement with the generals for several reasons, say analysts.

"Japan has worked hard to build strong ties with Myanmar, a policy that can be traced back to the 1980s, when other countries were refusing to engage with the military government there," Akitoshi Miyashita, a professor of international relations at Tokyo International University, told DW.

That assistance has continued until recently and primarily took the form of large amounts of development aid, he said. In fiscal 2019 alone, Japan's Official Development Assistance (ODA) to Myanmar stood at nearly 200 billion yen (€1.54 billion, $1.81 billion), making Japan the fourth-largest donor in the world and the biggest in Asia.

Low-interest loans agreement

As recently as September last year, Tokyo signed an agreement to provide low-interest loans of 42.78 billion yen for the construction of transport infrastructure and to offer financing for small and medium-size companies.

Of that total, 27.78 billion yen was to be invested on a road bridge on Myanmar's East-West Economic Corridor, a key economic artery that links the country with Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tokyo said.

That deal underlines one of Japan's motivations in Myanmar, which has evolved into an important location for Japanese manufacturers to build factories and take advantage of relatively low labor costs. That policy, in turn, has helped to create a new market for Japanese products.

For Tokyo, a second and arguably more important factor behind its decision to keep lines of communication with the military junta open is geopolitical.

"Japan's muted response to the human rights abuses in Myanmar is primarily because it does not want the military junta there to get any closer to China," Stephen Nagy, an associate professor of international relations at Tokyo's International Christian University, told DW.

Infographic showing Myanmar's biggest markets

Bulwark against Beijing

Tokyo has in recent years been working hard to build up cooperative diplomatic relationships with governments throughout the Indo-Pacific region to act as a bulwark against Beijing's aggressive expansionist policies, such as in the South China Sea, Nagy said.

China undoubtedly has deep pockets, but Japan hopes that its refusal to fall in line with the rest of the international community and impose sanctions, as well as the long-standing ties with previous military governments, might still give it some sway.

The domestic audience, however, appears to be losing patience with that strategy – particularly when the US, the UK, Canada and the European Union froze the nation's assets held overseas and imposed other sanctions against companies linked to the military.

A group of politicians from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party broke ranks on Tuesday and drafted a resolution calling on the government to be more "prudent" in its economic and security cooperation with Myanmar.

Social media is being used by some to express anger at the government's reluctance to apply more pressure, with one poster on the Japan Today website insisting that by failing to take more direct punitive measures, Tokyo was "complicit in this bloody crackdown, pure and simple."

Another poster said, "there is nothing 'courageous' about Japan's posture, of offering words but very little action. In fact, it's cowardly conniving."

A Burmese interpreter also made headlines for carrying out a survey of compatriots living in Japan about Tokyo's response to the coup. More than 90% of respondents said they opposed further economic assistance to their homeland, while over 85% said Japanese ambassador Ichiro Maruyama should not have met with Wunna Maung Lwin, who has been installed as the regime's new foreign minister.

Violence and bloodshed

Nagy believes there will be a gradual increase in public opposition to Tokyo's approach of communication over confrontation.

"The intellectual community, NGOs and others are all demanding that the Japanese government take a more forceful stance on the human rights abuses that are taking place in Myanmar and to push back against the generals," the expert said.

"Tokyo still prefers the back-channel diplomacy that it has used in the past when it comes to places such as Iran, the Philippines or Saudi Arabia," he said, adding: "While that was successful in the Philippines, there was not much payoff with the Iranians."

"With Myanmar, it's too early to say whether a diplomatic approach will work, but I would have to say that right now it does not look good. But this does also underline the fact that Japan does not have many cards in its diplomatic playbook and Tokyo needs to be pragmatic," he said.