AsiaViews, Edition: 46/I/November/2004
Japanese people occasionally say ?yes? when they really mean ?no.? This may often be simple politeness. But sometimes it is done more deliberately, to save face and buy time to pursue one?s real agenda without attracting undue attention.
When it comes to discussing bilateral aid to Burma, Japan?s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or MoFA, has proven adept at deflecting attention from its long-term policy toward Burma with short-term initiatives designed to appease international critics. A case in point is MoFA?s calculated ambiguity about Japanese Official Development Assistance, or ODA, since the May 2003 Depayin Massacre, in which dozens, perhaps hundreds, of members of the main opposition National League for Democracy, or NLD, were bludgeoned to death by a government-orchestrated mob.
Following Depayin, Japan claimed to have suspended ODA to Burma, in response to the bloodbath and subsequent detention of NLD general-secretary Aung San Suu Kyi (who was lucky to escape Depayin alive). Given that Japan has long pursued an engagement policy with Burma, and has been the largest provider of economic aid to the country, a suspension of ODA would presumably have carried a certain weight with Rangoon. Some news articles even speculated that Japan had finally shifted to a tougher policy on Burma similar to that of the United States and the UK.
Not so fast! A year and a half later, with Aung San Suu Kyi still under house arrest, regime hardliners firmly in control and the overall dismal political situation in Rangoon unchanged, Tokyo has resumed ODA to Burma. Most notably, in June this year Japan gave the regime human resource development scholarships to the value of about US $4.86 million (532 million yen) and in July a grant of about $3.15 million for an afforestation project in Burma?s central dry zone. In addition, Tokyo has provided nearly 30 smaller ODA grants to non-governmental organizations for various operations in Burma.
This resumption of ODA has gone largely unnoticed. The question begs asking: if Japan froze ODA in response to the events at Depayin and the situation in Burma has not improved since, why would Japan revert to its prior, pro-engagement approach? Framed in this way, Tokyo?s ODA resumption makes little sense. From a different perspective, however, Japan?s policy is perhaps comprehensible.
That is, even after the Depayin Massacre, Tokyo never wanted to freeze ODA, and the suspension it did impose was motivated primarily by a desire to save face when confronted by international pressure in response to the event and Aung San Suu Kyi?s subsequent detention. When the immediate crisis in Burma passed and the pressure eased, Japan quietly resumed business as usual.
Left to itself, it is unlikely that Japan would have taken any concrete action following Depayin at all. Indeed, Tokyo refused even to criticize the regime about the massacre. One of the first public comments by the Japanese government about the events of May 30 came from Minister of Foreign Affairs at the time Yoriko Kawaguchi. At a press conference on June 3, 2003, she attempted to play down the significance of the events, stating: ?I do not think that the situation is getting worse. Although there was this incident, when we look at the release of political prisoners, there has been much progress, and progress is being made toward democratization.? The foreign minister made her statement in Japanese and MoFA never published an English translation. This did not, however, prevent it from reaching the ears of government officials and the media elsewhere.
?Shame on the Japanese,? said US Senator John McCain. ?I find it hard to believe that any democratic government would stand by the junta as it takes Burma on a forced march back in time.? ?Reactions,? asserted a Washington Post editorial following Depayin, ?have ranged from the inappropriately cautious to the unspeakably fatuous. We?re thinking in the latter case of Japan, whose foreign minister responded to the attack on and arrest of Burma?s rightful leader with an expression of satisfaction in the pace of democratization.?
Shortly afterwards, a flurry of articles in the Japanese and English-speaking press indicated that Japan would suspend economic assistance to Burma. There was, however, no official announcement from MoFA regarding the reported suspension, much less any statement concerning the suspension?s terms.
In the absence of any public statement from MoFA, some press reports speculated that Japan ?planned? to freeze aid to Burma, while others claimed that such a freeze had already been put in place. There was also confusion in the press about the duration of the supposed freeze. Most articles indicated that Japan would maintain the freeze until Aung San Suu Kyi was released. But Japanese daily newspaper Asahi Shimbun quoted an anonymous MoFA official, who stated vaguely: ?We will . . . decide whether to resume [aid to Burma] depending on the situation.?
Furthermore, the New York Times, Reuters and other media inadvertently did MoFA a public relations favor in 1989 when they reported that Japan froze ?all? economic assistance to Burma. In fact, Japan had suspended only new yen loans in 1989, not other forms of assistance, nor the draw-down of lending already approved before 1989. (Even then, despite the freeze on new lending, in 1989 Tokyo approved a loan of about 25 billion yen to repair and expand Rangoon International Airport, arguing implausibly that the loan was not ?new? as it had been promised to Burma before 1988.)
For most of the past decade, Japan?s ODA to Burma has consisted mainly of non-lending aid such as grants and technical assistance. The suspension reported in June 2003 affected only new ODA in the form of these grants and technical assistance.
Sterilized Freeze?No Shift in Policy
Given that the suspension on new ODA was likely motivated by international criticism of Japan?s response to Depayin, it is perhaps unsurprising that the freeze was less than enthusiastically endorsed. On June 24, 2003, for instance, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said that Japan?s policy on Burma was necessarily ?different from the policy taken by the US and EU.? the implication being that Japan would not alter its policy to bring it closer in line with the tougher, sanctions-oriented approach of America and Europe.
On June 26, 2003, Senior Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs Tetsuro Yano, who had just returned from a one-day trip to Rangoon, showed considerable discomfort about the suspension of new ODA. ?Some may say that we should stop ODA unless the situation is resolved as soon as possible,? he stated. ?But I strongly conveyed our [the Japanese government?s] request that Myanmar resolve the situation, in part so that Japan and Myanmar will be able to continue the friendly bilateral relations they have had so far . . . . I think that, under these circumstances, it is extremely difficult to extend further ODA, but on the other hand, I am increasingly determined that we should resolve the situation as soon as possible and resume our normal bilateral relations.?
Moreover, despite formal statements from MoFA calling for the immediate release of Aung San Suu Kyi, the message conveyed to Rangoon by Japanese officials lacked any sense of urgency. For example, after Yano had delivered a letter (which presumably concerned the situation following Depayin) from Prime Minister Koizumi to the then Secretary-1 Lt-Gen Khin Nyunt, Yano told Khin Nyunt that he expected him to discuss the letter with Prime Minister Sr-Gen Than Shwe. Yano also told Khin Nyunt that it was ?all right if you put off answering for one day, two days; we will wait until the answer is given.?
Similarly, foreign minister Kawaguchi, when asked whether she had any timeline or deadline in mind for Suu Kyi?s release, said: ?I think we should give the government of Myanmar enough time to [let our requests] sink in and lead to a decision.?
Tokyo?s ODA freeze, such as it existed, was lifted after only several months. In October 2003, MoFA began extending ODA to Burma in the form of ?Grassroots Grant Assistance.? Since then, approximately 30 such grants have been provided, primarily to NGOs. In addition, in January 2004 MoFA gave 159 million yen in grant aid for human resources development directly to the regime.
As noted above, in June 2004, another grant aid of 532 million yen was given for human resource development and 344 million yen for an afforestation project. All told, since October 2003, Japan has provided more than two billion yen ($18.6 million) in new ODA to Burma.
MoFA has never officially acknowledged the resumption of assistance. Some MoFA officials have even denied that it took place. In May 2004, six US congressmen wrote to foreign minister Kawaguchi asking for clarification of Japan?s policy towards Burma in light of the military regime?s continued intransigence. Thus far, MoFA has not answered the letter.
By: Yuki Akimoto
The Irrawaddy November 23, 2004