Japan Announces $96 Million in Aid for Ethnic Areas

By Yen Saning 6 January 2014

RANGOON — The Japanese Ambassador to Burma, together with influential Japanese charity the Nippon Foundation, announced on Monday that Tokyo plans to spend US $96 million in the next five years in order to improve living standards and promote peace in Burma’s war-torn ethnic areas.

Ambassador Mikio Numata told a press conference in Rangoon that Japanese aid organizations would disburse the funds after discussing their planned aid operations with the government and ethnic armed groups.

The ambassador and Nippon Foundation Chairman Yohei Sasakawa, who co-hosted the press conference, offered few details of how and where the huge sum of aid money would be spent, other than to state that it would be used to support village livelihoods, boost job skills and to provide food aid and medicine.

“The aid is for ordinary ethnics who have suffered war and conflict. Housing will be required in the long and short terms for villagers who have left their homes due to the conflict … They will also need to learn skills for professions in order to gain incomes,” Sasakawa said through a translator.

The Nippon Foundation has long taken an interest in Burma, and following the reforms introduced by President Thein Sein in the last two years, the foundation has become increasingly active in the country.

It has sought to play a leading role in Burma’s complex ethnic conflict and the foundation organized aid deliveries into three ethnic areas last year, bringing along reporters to cover its rice donations to villagers.

“We have found out from our trips to ethnic areas that people have to leave their homes, lack enough food and medicine, and children go without enough food to eat,” said Sasakawa, who Tokyo has appointed as Special Envoy for National Reconciliation in Myanmar.

“We believe that both sides [the government and ethnic groups] will be satisfied with the amount of aid that we will provide,” he added.

The Nippon Foundation told The Irrawaddy in an email later that it is considering applying for a share of the $96 million in Japanese funds in order to run aid operations in ethnic areas.

Japan has been quick to reestablish economic ties with Burma after international sanctions were cancelled, in order to build up Japanese economic interests in the country and support Thein Sein’s nominally-civilian government.

In 2013, Tokyo cancelled more than US $3 billion in foreign debt owed by Burma and provided a $500 million loan to clear Naypyidaw’s arrears with international financial institutions. Japanese firms are also helping to develop the Thilawa Special Economic Zone near Rangoon, while Tokyo has promised to support a range of infrastructural upgrade projects.

The Nippon Foundation has played a supporting role in these efforts. Its chairman Sasakawa is very well-connected in Japan, where he is known to be close to the current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. His nationalist government is keen to build up relations with East and Southeast Asian nations, in part to offset the growing economic and military power of China.