In Person

Success of Current Gov’t ‘Pivotal’ to Myanmar’s Future: Japanese Ambassador

By The Irrawaddy 1 November 2018


While the U.N. and some Western nations have taken a hard line against the Myanmar government over the plight of the Rohingya, Tokyo has charted its own course, showing steadfast support to State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her government. The Irrawaddy (English edition) editor Kyaw Zwa Moe sat down with Japanese Ambassador Ichiro Maruyama to discuss bilateral relations, the Rakhine crisis and Western nations’ threat to impose sanctions.

Kyaw Zwa Moe: To begin with, Ambassador Ichiro Maruyama, it seems to me that the bilateral relationship between Myanmar and Japan has been upgraded to the next level. Myanmar has been going through a difficult time, especially in terms of politics and the economy. Myanmar has been widely criticized by Western countries and international organizations since the conflict in Rakhine began. At the same time, Japan—unlike some international groups and Western nations, such as the UN or certain countries—stands firmly behind Myanmar. Why?

Ambassador Maruyama: The fact is, Myanmar was, for many reasons, under the Tatmadaw regime for 50 years. Given that fact, it didn’t fully deal with Western nations, or with Japan and the UN. In 2011 when [then] President Thein Sein’s government took office, economic and political relations with Western countries improved a lot. We, Japan, have come to provide full economic assistances to Myanmar, such as through ODA [overseas development assistance]. Elections were held in 2015. We have had the government led by State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi [since it was elected] with the overwhelming support of the people in 2015. Since that time, the country has come under mounting international criticism over political and economic conditions, and especially due to the Rakhine crisis. However, in the view of the Japanese government, we strongly believe that the government, which has the support of the people but was spawned after 50 years [of military rule], should be able to address a great deal of the political and economical hardships, as well as the Rakhine crisis. This is our position when dealing with the Myanmar government.

KZM: But Japan, as you said, has a contrary position to Western countries. So far, the EU and the U.K. have constantly criticized Myanmar, especially the Tatmadaw. Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono wrote a piece in The Washington Post saying that Western countries should not simply criticize Myanmar, but patiently support its efforts at securing the early, safe, voluntary and dignified repatriation of refugees. He meticulously highlighted this. What is your take? Does the international community understand what he said?

Ambassador: This is the job of the Japanese ambassador—to help them understand it. But what I can tell you is that the ambassadors of Western countries, especially the U.S. and European ambassadors, along with [myself], have a shared objective, that Myanmar will be democratic and prosperous. We all have the same goal. We do not have any intention to make this country disappear. This is a position that we share. However, we have exercised different policies to achieve that objective. Therefore, since we have the same objective, I assume it is possible to work together with the Western countries. The other point, in fact, is that Japan totally disagrees with other countries that are considering imposing economic sanctions against Myanmar because of the Rakhine State crisis. If economic sanctions are imposed, it will not only undermine stability and progress on the political and economic fronts, but Myanmar’s economy and its workforce will suffer the most. It is utter nonsense. If economic sanctions would resolve the problems in Rakhine State, we would join (the effort) too. But it (economic sanctions) will make the situation worse. That is certain. Therefore, frankly speaking, we totally disagree with those countries that are considering imposing economic sanctions on Myanmar.

KZM: Despite the fact that you, Mr. Ambassador, and Foreign Minister Kono himself have tried to explain this policy, the E.U. is considering withdrawing trade preferences from Myanmar. If that happens, between 400,000 and 500,000 garment factory workers would be laid off. They are the grassroots of society. Having said that, it seems that the efforts being made by [yourself] and the Japanese government…on behalf of Myanmar have not had much impact.

Ambassador: If in fact the economic sanctions are imposed—especially if the GSP [generalized system of preferences] is withdrawn, it is certain that working people will suffer gravely. That’s why we totally disagree with the idea of withdrawing the GSP. However, if E.U. member countries want to see Myanmar become democratic and prosperous, we will not give up but continue to discuss ways of working with the E.U. and other Western countries.

KZM: Is there any possibility of that?

Ambassador: Yes, there is. It’s good not to give up.

KZM: Japanese Foreign Minister Kono said in the last paragraph of his article in The Washington Post that “the international community must not short-circuit Myanmar’s evolution toward democracy.” This echoes what you just said about the West’s approach and policy on Myanmar being so different.

Ambassador: The difficult part, as we all know, is that the majority of people wanted democracy during the reign of the Tatmadaw government, and so did the international community. The international community and people inside the country spoke with a single voice. Now, in the case of Rakhine for example, the views of the international community and people inside the country are totally opposite. This indicates how complex the Rakhine situation is. We can’t solve it right away. We don’t have an immediate solution to that problem, either. If the Myanmar government tries patiently to solve the problem, Japan will support it as best it can while listening to the people’s voices. Then, we will try to make the voices of people in Myanmar and the Myanmar government heard by UN organizations and Western countries. We believe that this will bring positive change step by step.

KZM: As your have explained, Mr. Ambassador, something they don’t understand is that now we have a democratically elected government. In other words, it has the will to solve the problem democratically, in the view of Japan. However, some  observers in the West see this purely through the lens of human rights violations by the top brass of the Tatmadaw, and even see it as a good chance to overthrow the Tatmadaw leadership. But we have a very complicated political situation in Myanmar. Within the democratic system, the Constitution guarantees that the Tatmadaw holds power, with positions in the Cabinet and Parliament. Don’t they understand the complications that arise from taking such a stance?

Ambassador: In this country, we have got the government as well as the Tatmadaw. All nations have their own army. Then we also have the press, and the justice system. All of these sectors are involved in governing the country. We want to see Myanmar stable and developed, but if we were to take action against the Tatmadaw—which constitutes one of the important sectors of the country—there will be no hope of seeing that stability and development. Therefore, when we deal with a country, it is imperative to help all the important sectors of the country, including the Tatmadaw, media and judiciary, develop positively. If we point at one particular sector, this is bad. The future of the country will be uncertain if we take action against (the Army) for human rights violations and so forth.

KZM: You accompanied State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on her recent visit to Japan, during which she held bilateral meetings with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. In Japan, she said Tokyo had a better understanding of the situation in Myanmar than some other countries. How successful would you say her trip was?

Ambassador: Our prime minister has met with State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi many times. This time, she paid a visit to Japan as the [de facto] leader of Myanmar in her capacity as state counselor. She had a summit meeting with Prime Minister Abe. At the summit, our prime minister himself explained to the state counselor that Japan is ready to continue economic assistance and cooperation to Myanmar to help the country develop.

Secondly, regarding the matter of Rakhine State, the prime minister explained that Japan remains unchanged in its position that it will cooperate with Myanmar in dealing with matters there. The prime minister also advised the state counselor that it was imperative to work with UN organizations in order to move forward. That’s why we hope to see cooperation with the UN. For that matter, the prime minister also reiterated to the state counselor that Japan would assist Myanmar to the best of its ability.

KZM: Relations between Myanmar and Japan have risen to a new level. Japan’s assistance to Myanmar’s economy and democratic transition has gone further than before; it is now playing a mediating role between the international community and Myanmar, which is a huge task. But I see that the UN and Myanmar are not getting along well. Do you see any weakness in Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s government in that regard?

Ambassador: I don’t think there is any weakness. Given the history, Rakhine is a very complex situation. Looking at the Rakhine case, we have taken all aspects into our considerations. The UN wants to solve the Rakhine problem but it doesn’t know exactly how complex the Rakhine situation is. Therefore, there will always be misunderstanding between the Myanmar government and international organizations. That is not due to the Myanmar government’s weakness. I don’t think so. I want to compliment the Myanmar government for allowing UNHRC to visit Maungdaw and Buthidaung in northern Rakhine State under these difficult circumstances.  The UNHCR is now visiting the region. We really hope that relations between the Myanmar government and UN organizations will be based upon the findings from this visit.

The Myanmar government is facing challenges—political challenges, especially involving the peace process. Then, there are economic challenges and the Rakhine problem. It is not important whether or not the government has the capacity to overcome these challenges. If weaknesses are there, we will work to assist it. Because when considering the future of Myanmar, the success of this government is pivotal. It is important to solve all the current problems. It is important to make things right. Otherwise, we worry that the future of Myanmar will be more challenging. That’s why we are working with the Myanmar government as much as we can to overcome these challenges.

KZM: Mr. Ambassador, you have said that Japan’s policy is that Myanmar has a democratically elected government and is in a democratic transition. Japan is supporting Myanmar’s efforts. What if we had a government that was not democratically elected? How would Japan deal with Myanmar?

Ambassador: The people of Myanmar long desired to see a democratic country. The Myanmar people themselves laid the foundation for establishing democracy. Based on that, we will cooperate [with them] to move the country toward prosperity. If we want to see a stable, democratic and prosperous Myanmar, it is important that it engages with the whole world. We are working to help [Myanmar] fully engage with the international community. In doing so, if Myanmar shows that it is moving towards genuine democracy, no one will object to it. Japan is working together with Myanmar to successfully move in this direction.

KZM: Amid many problems, Myanmar is moving toward a democratic transition. So far, things remain unstable. The democratically elected government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi only has about two more years in office. What is your advice to her for winning the elections in order to continue the democratic transition?

Ambassador: It doesn’t matter who leads the government, the country is going through a very challenging time. It means that both the international community and the people inside the country have placed so much hope in Myanmar. It is not possible to address all the challenges immediately, one after another. I believe that taking a step-by-step initiative is the only way to overcome the challenges.

KZM: You first met Daw Aung San Suu Kyi 20 years ago. At that time, she was hailed as democracy icon. The whole world supported her and promoted her. Now, especially when it comes to the Rakhine case, Western countries criticize her. They have withdrawn her awards and harshly criticized her, saying she has changed—that she has taken the side of the Tatmadaw leaders. They say she has not upheld the human rights principles she once advocated. Has Daw Aung San Suu Kyi changed?

Ambassador: She has not changed. I first met Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in 1995. She had just been released after six years of house arrest. The first time, I met her at her University Avenue residence. At that time, she said she totally opposed the Japanese government’s economic assistance to the Tatmadaw regime. She said she opposed it for the country. She didn’t agree with the Japanese government’s policy. And now what she is opposing is for the country and for the people. Therefore, she has not changed since the first encounter in 1995. People see her as a symbol of universal democracy and human rights. But she has sacrificed her whole life for this country and the people of Myanmar, as the leader of this country. In my view, she has not changed from her time in 1995 under the military regime until her time in office now—that I strongly believe.

KZM: But some veteran human rights activists in Myanmar say that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has changed, especially when presenting the policy of the NLD or of the government; they say that she fails to consult other ethnic organizations or democratic groups. They also say they have a less cordial relationship with her now. What is your take on that?

Ambassador: This country is facing many difficulties, be it in terms of the ethnic groups or the economy—people are facing hardships. Therefore, as the leader of the country, she will lay down a policy she believes is best for the country. Everyone may not support it—that would be impossible. Some people will criticize it. But the most important thing is that a leader of a country can listen to criticism and review their policy; that would be ideal. I believe that State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is such a leader.

KZM: Japan has been supporting Myanmar’s economy. During Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit, Japan pledged to help the economy and the development of the country, including Yangon. It provides a lot of loans. Is Myanmar enticing for Japanese businesspeople and companies? Foreign direct investment has decreased in Myanmar and we have issues with a lack of infrastructure. So how attractive is Myanmar to private businesses?

Ambassador: Myanmar has faced international criticism on the Rakhine issue. At that time, the state counselor went to Japan and met not only with our prime minister but also with Japanese businesspeople. The Myanmar Investment Seminar was held in Tokyo on Oct. 8. That day was a public holiday in Japan. We were very worried that businesspeople would not join, as it was a three-day holiday. But when the seminar convened, 450 people attended. The state counselor herself explained that she wanted to invite businesses to Myanmar. It shows that Japanese businesspeople are very interested in doing business in Myanmar when they continue to do so even when the country faces international criticism.

As you said, there are weaknesses in the basic infrastructure — roads, communication, and access to electricity. Therefore, the Japanese government collaborates with the Myanmar government to improve communications, transportation and electricity by using the ODA fund. When the infrastructure is developed, more Japanese companies will enter Myanmar, which we believe will help improve the economy. It is the Japanese government’s view that we want many Japanese companies to work in Myanmar.

KZM: Are the 450 people potential businesses? Are they bigger companies? That is a lot.

Ambassador: Many are big companies, but also smaller ones were represented.

KZM: Japan thinks of Myanmar as a strategic country, partly as Myanmar is located between India and China. Myanmar is also a link to ASEAN. What is your view on Myanmar in terms of geopolitical location?

Ambassador: Myanmar is important because of its location, both as an ASEAN country and being between China and India with a link to the Indian Ocean. Therefore, it is very significant geopolitically. When we think about economic relations with ASEAN, relations with Myanmar are extremely significant.

KZM: Why?

Ambassador: Our Japanese companies did not invest in Myanmar for many years, due to various reasons. Since three or four years ago, many Japanese companies entered and participated in business investments. If Myanmar implements a strong and sustainable economy and develops it, I think that our Japanese companies could play an important role.

KZM: Before continuing on about the economic issues, let me ask you one thing. You said that Japanese businesspeople have a lot of interest in Myanmar, even though you don’t have a specific reason. They want to do business in Myanmar. Does this go back to the World War II era and the sentiment and relations between the two countries?

Ambassador: I don’t know and I can’t explain it. I have spoken about it everywhere that during World War II, the Japanese army in Myanmar caused a lot of trouble for the Myanmar people. Then, when Japan lost the war, the army fled the country. Many soldiers suffered hardship and disease at this time. The Myanmar people helped these soldiers and gave them food and medicine. This kind of nation cannot be found elsewhere in Asia.

After World War II, we started not only relations between the Japanese government and the Myanmar government, but also relations between the people of both countries. It has continued since then. This kind of nation is hard to find and Japan will not find another like Myanmar. We cannot explain why. For Japan, Myanmar and its people are extraordinary.

KZM: Let me also raise another thing related to this. Japan invaded Myanmar, just before World War II. It was a short period, but the Japanese ruled Myanmar. The British had colonized Myanmar and ruled for about 100 years. Why don’t the British understand Myanmar as Japan does? Is it geographical or something else?

Ambassador: You should ask the British ambassador.

KZM: I would, but what is your opinion?

Ambassador: It is hard to tell.

KZM: The Myanmar government and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi have repeatedly explained Myanmar’s situation. During her trip to Japan, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi also talked about this. She said that old friends were not as steadfast as they might be, either because they don’t understand or don’t want to understand. Do you think this is because of geographical or historical differences?

Ambassador: It is hard for us to tell, but let me give you an example. Myanmar and Japan use similar sentence structures, but different sounds. Japanese culture and Myanmar traditions and culture are also very similar. For instance, Myanmar people pay deep respect to the elders and value them. Japan also has this kind of culture. Another unusual thing is that Myanmar has the word “Ah Nar De” and Japan also has that word “Ah Nar De.” As our cultures are so similar, perhaps that is why Japanese people like and understand Myanmar people.

KZM: As you said, in the past, Japan had a lot of criticism against Myanmar when the country was under military rule, particularly due to human rights violations. But in the meantime, there was engagement. This was different from the West. However, China backed the then military government and many Myanmar civilians do not like China very much. Also, as for the economic aspect, people don’t like Chinese businesses, because there is no democratic standard and transparent tender system. Now Japan is engaging in business. What kind of challenges are you facing in sectors in which China is already set up?

Ambassador: The Japanese government aims to have a win-win relationship with Myanmar. We want to support basic infrastructure and hope this promotes economic development. Then more Japanese companies will enter and this will benefit the Myanmar people. Our Japanese companies will also benefit if they can work in Myanmar. This is what we call a win-win situation. Our first objective is the economic development of Myanmar. If this is successful, out companies will benefit. With this way of thinking, we only deal with Myanmar, its politics and economy. Therefore, we don’t have any reason to compete with China.

KZM: But we have seen it. With China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and its business, political and economic influence, the country is aggressively pushing for it.

Now they are focusing on the Kyaukphyu seaport project, which could one day become a Chinese-owned port. This project is also important and close to the Indian Ocean. How concerned is Japan about these projects and their unseen consequences?

Ambassador: It is hard for us to see this as a concern because Myanmar and China are bordering countries and have many years of ongoing relations. They have economic relations, as well as relations regarding peace and politics. Therefore, we understand that China’s influence is significant for Myanmar.  We aren’t worried about this. We respect rule of law in bilateral relations and international relations. These relations are not about excluding a nation. We all must be able to communicate with all kinds of people and countries, and thus be inclusive. Therefore, when we talk about freedom and independence, we must focus on rule of law and inclusivity. Anyone who wants to participate can do so and we aim to reach such a relationship.

KZM: Now there are rumors that if Myanmar politics are unstable, the Tatmadaw will not like this. This leads to concerns that the current political order and the democratic transition could be reverting. Do you see it that way?

Ambassador: I don’t think so. This is totally a rumor. There are two extraordinary things in regards to Myanmar. In 2011, after then President U Thein Sein took power, he led the political and economic changes and established good relationships with Western countries. Then the 2015 general election was held peacefully and successfully. Not only that, the Tatmadaw and the previous government handed over power to the NLD-led government. Having said that, I don’t really think that the Tatmadaw leaders would hold power again for the sake of returning to the old undemocratic time.

KZM: But Myanmar is in a tight corner right now with the Rakhine issues. The West has criticized the country harshly. The criticism started on both the Tatmadaw and the government, but now it is targeted against Tatmadaw leaders. The latest is the referral to the International Criminal Court. But the Tatmadaw leaders say it is unacceptable and they don’t accept it. The government also objects. But if international pressure continues to mount, what will the Tatmadaw leaders think? As you have met Senior General Min Aung Hlaing [Myanmar’s military chief], what do you think they think about this?

Ambassador: We are very concerned about the actions and the referral of senior Tatmadaw leaders to the ICC. We are worried. The important thing is that if we want to solve the Rakhine issue and have positive outcomes, we have to work together with both the NLD-led government and the Tatmadaw. We are concerned that if action is taken against the Tatmadaw leaders, the potential to solve the Rakhine issues might disappear. We are extremely concerned about this.

KZM: As you said, Myanmar politics depends on bilateral relations between the civilian government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the Tatmadaw leader. In other words, it depends on national reconciliation. What do you think of their relations?

Ambassador:  State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, her NLD government and its history, and the history of the Tatmadaw are completely different. Would these two leaders who put two opposite histories on their shoulders agree on everything? Will they? This is a very human issue. But these two leaders are working hard to find common ground. We see it that way. If they are trying to work it out, we will support them and encourage them.

KZM: Thank you very much Mr. Ambassador.

Ambassador: Thank you.