Yohei Sasakawa, the chairman of the Nippon Foundation, was recently appointed by the Japanese government as its special envoy to assist ethnic reconciliation in Burma. In this capacity, he will represent Japan’s efforts to foster dialogue between the ethnic minorities, the Burmese government and the governments of other countries. He and his organization have also been active in delivering humanitarian aid to ethnic rebel-controlled territories where displaced civilians have been adversely affected by conflict for decades. The Irrawaddy‘s senior reporter, Saw Yan Naing, recently spoke to him in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai about his activities in Burma.
Question: You have been appointed “Special Envoy of the Government of Japan for National Reconciliation in Myanmar.” So what is your role and what are your future plans in Burma?
Answer: As you know, our activities are limited to [providing] humanitarian aid. As a first step, we will be meeting the immediate needs of the ethnic minority groups in Myanmar, which are rice and medicine. To meet these needs, we have begun transporting rice and medicine to villagers—some from inside Myanmar, and in other cases, from Thailand border with the permission of Thai government. These are activities that have just started.
We started these initiatives in October 2012. This is the first time that an organization such as our own has provided aid to armed rebels in ethnic minority areas. These initiatives have been proceeding very smoothly. After the first stage, we will have to ascertain the further needs of the ethnic minority groups who are armed and active against the government. We will evaluate their needs by listening to their opinions. To implement that stage, we have to receive feedback from the affected people. At this point in time, actually, it has not yet been decided what kind of action we will take.
Q: What do you think about Burma’s ethnic conflicts and the country’s prospects for lasting peace?
A: When US President Obama visited Yangon, he mentioned in his speech that the United States is also a multi-ethnic country. However, it is not just a multi-ethnic country, but a unified one. Myanmar has 135 ethnic minority groups. I believe Myanmar may be one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world, and this is something I think the people of Myanmar are proud of. Therefore, I believe that moving forward means ensuring the co-existence and co-prosperity Burma’s people and ethnic minorities.
I have met government officials of Myanmar. I have also met leaders of the 88 Generation Students group. And I have also met with leaders of the ethnic minority groups, mainly here in Thailand. Each of the stakeholders in Myanmar truly wish for the unification of the country. And I believe this is a very rare case, because in most conflict regions around the world, you can see that most anti-government groups call for secession. However, this is not the case in Myanmar. Every citizens in Myanmar is hoping for unification, not secession.
Q: The Nippon Foundation has provided a lot of aid and financial support in ethnic regions, and has become very involved in peace talks between the Burmese government and ethnic armed groups. Why is the foundation providing so much financial assistance in Burma? And why has Japan provided so much financial support and even forgiven Burma’s loans? Why has Japan come so close to Burma?
A: Our organization provides humanitarian aid worldwide. In recent years, we have especially extended our activities in Myanmar. The reason why we provide such humanitarian aid is, first of all, based on my own childhood experiences. When I was a small child, I lived in poverty. There was a food shortage, so I often had to go to bed on a hungry stomach. Because of that experience, I have been, for the past 25 years, providing food in Africa. In Myanmar, in the areas under the control of ethnic armed groups, there are many internally displaced persons (IDPs). When I look back on my childhood experiences, I have a very strong passion and will to provide aid and supports to save children who are affected right now.
I was seven years old when World War II ended. One night, because of the bombing, Tokyo was devastated. Some 180,000 people died in one night because of the bombing. As a child, I saw many dead bodies, and that made a strong impression on my mind of the cruelty of war. Therefore, I sincerely believe that it is very important to establish peace. That comes from my own childhood experience. Right after the war, when there was a food shortage in Japan, Myanmar sent us rice. So people of my generation or older, we clearly remember the food and aid we received from Myanmar right after the Second World War. That is why the Japanese people feel very close to the people of Myanmar.
The second reason we provide aid is Japan and Western countries have for many years been demanding that Myanmar democratize. Therefore, I believe it is the responsibility of Western countries as well as Japan to support Myanmar’s democratization process, precisely because we have been demanding that. However, with the government’s budget of only US $5 billion, and with a population of 60 million in Myanmar, it is not possible for the Myanmar government alone to achieve democracy. Therefore, I believe strongly that it is actually the responsibility of we who have demanded democratization to support Myanmar. This is the view held not only by the Japanese government, but also by the Japanese people as well.
Q: Some have criticized the Nippon Foundation for cooperating more with the government and government-backed organizations such as the Myanmar Peace Center than with community-based organizations (CBOs) in ethnic regions. There is also concern that money given to the government will be misspent because of rampant corruption. What is your reaction to that?
A: First of all, I do not know whether the Myanmar government is corrupt or not. But it is true that in Africa, there are some governments that are corrupt.
It is the philosophy of the Nippon Foundation never to give any money to any government. That has always been our philosophy and it is the principle that underlies our activities. We will never give any money to the Myanmar government.
When we distribute rice and medicine, all distribution is managed entirely by us. That is, we buy the rice and medicine directly and we distribute it directly. The entire process is totally done by ourselves.
It is true that we don’t provide aid directly to the CBOs. But if you look at the Mae Tao Clinic [in Mae Sot, Thailand], the first building facilities were actually constructed by my father [Ryoichi Saskawa, founder of the Nippon Foundation]. And now they are going to run out of funding and they are coming to us to seek more funds.
Our organization has to prioritize our activities because our funds are limited. We have received feedback from the armed minority groups and we realized that they require food and medicine. Therefore, our current priority is to provide rice and medicine to the affected groups. To move forward, if the situation should arrive where the activities of the CBOs are very important, and the priority of the CBOs become very important, then of course, we will support the activities of the CBOs. But you must understand that we just started this initiative last October.
Q: There are some who believe that economic development will end the ethnic armed conflicts. President’s Office Minister Aung Min even said that if the ethnic minorities get rich, they will forget about waging war with the government for greater autonomy. Do you agree with that?
A: It is vitally important to have a trust-building process between the armed minority groups and the Myanmar government. I believe that the two parties have to build trust between themselves. I think this is a very important point of the peace negotiation process. But this is a process that no foreign person has the right to interfere in. That is my opinion.
Just agreeing to a ceasefire doesn’t solve any problems, because unless the lives of villagers in ethnic minority regions improve, they will not accept such a ceasefire. I think it is very important that after a ceasefire has been reached, the benefits that come from establishing peace should reach all of the affected people. For the fruits of the peace to be provided to the people, I believe it is my role to come up with a very specific plan that will lead to improvements in the lives of ethnic minority people.
When I talk about the benefits that come from peace, I mean things like schools and hospitals, as well as improving agricultural productivity. There are so many things that we can do. These are the sort of benefits that peace can offer to the villagers. But we need to hear from the villagers themselves what they need. And I believe that CBOs will have very major role to play in giving us information about what they believe the villagers need. So I will ask the CBOs and the villagers themselves to come up with plans that they would like to implement after the ceasefire have been established. And based on that feedback, we can come up with reconstruction plans that will be supported by the Japanese government.
Q: So how does the Nippon Foundation plan to listen to the voices and feedback of affected people?
A: You need to have a central organization such as the UNFC [United Nationalities Federal Council], which the villagers can contact and tell them what they need. The Japanese government or the Nippon Foundation cannot interact on an individual basis with every villager or every village or every CBO. But I don’t know if the UNFC can actually gather or evaluate the needs of all of the different villagers in different regions. But you need to have that kind of organization to approach the Nippon Foundation.
Q: As Japan’s special envoy to help national reconciliation between the ethnic minorities and the Burmese government, what do you think is the best way to achieve this goal?
A: The most hopeful sign for reconciliation is the fact that none of the ethnic minority groups are asking for secession.
The conflict has continued for 60 years. Many ceasefires have been signed, and many have been broken. To truly promote conflict resolution, it is most important to build trust, even on a personal basis, because the past 60 years have shown that a resolution cannot be reached just by force. Therefore, I believe it is very important that the leaders who sit at the negotiating table always bear in mind the situation of the ordinary people—the hopes and aspirations of the ordinary people.
The reconciliation process has been advancing very rapidly recently. On Feb. 28, the first negotiation between the Myanmar government and the [UNFC] was held, and the second round of negotiations is expected to be held within months. We must keep the momentum going forward. It is also very important that the representatives truly represent the voices of the ordinary citizens and understand and bear in mind their aspirations. If they can do that, it will be successful.