Response to 'The Japanese Way to Peace in Burma'

By The Irrawaddy 22 March 2013

The following letter was received by Aung Zaw, the editor and director of The Irrawaddy, regarding a recent article about the role of Yohei Sasakawa, Japan’s special envoy for national reconciliation in Burma. It was written by Tatsuya Tanami, executive director of the Nippon Foundation, of which Mr. Sasakawa is the chairman.  

Dear Mr. Aung Zaw:

I am writing to express my disappointment at the recent article by Mr. Saw Yan Naing titled “The Japanese Way to Peace in Burma” about the role of The Nippon Foundation and its chairman, Yohei Sasakawa, in working for national reconciliation in Myanmar.  To read these efforts described as “naïve” and “throwing money at the problem,” and to encounter the suggestion, among others, that Mr. Sasakawa is less than impartial “because of his ties with the generals who previously ruled Burma,” came as a surprise.

Yohei Sasakawa was named Special Envoy of the Government of Japan for National Reconciliation in Myanmar in February this year. As such, his role is to represent the Japanese government in contacting the Myanmar government, ethnic minorities and governments of other countries in an effort to gain national reconciliation. Because our foundation has many years’ experience assisting Myanmar in areas such as agriculture, health, education and human resources development, we trust this is the reason why the Japanese government selected Mr. Sasakawa and the foundation for this important role.

As noted in your article, The Nippon Foundation pledged a grant of US $3 million in humanitarian aid to Myanmar. Since his appointment as special envoy, Mr. Sasakawa and his team have been focused on providing emergency relief in the form of food and medical supplies to areas that are home to ethnic minorities.

The idea that it is somehow naïve to provide emergency aid to persons in need is curious, as is the assertion that we are throwing money at the problem. The money is held by the foundation and we are extremely careful about how it is used, which is on a needs-only basis following a rigorous assessment we carry out ourselves. And I reiterate what Mr. Sasakawa himself is quoted as saying—none of this money goes to or through the Myanmar government, contrary to the concerns raised in the article.

The suggestion that Mr. Sasakawa’s sympathies lie with the government rather than with the ethnic minorities must also be challenged. True, he has visited Myanmar in the past and met with political leaders, but these visits were mainly to see the schools the foundation was building in Shan State and to observe country-wide leprosy elimination activities. During those visits, he met with ministers and high-ranking government officials in charge of the areas of work conducted by the foundation.

The article quotes an unnamed Japanese journalist claiming that Mr. Sasakawa is widely regarded as a “Japanese nationalist,” and leaves the impression that his close ties with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, “a staunch nationalist,” led to his being appointed special envoy to Myanmar. Leaving aside the question of what relevance this has to anything, I would like to point out that before he became special envoy, he had previously served as Goodwill Ambassador for the Welfare of National Races in Myanmar.  He was appointed by the foreign minister of Japan’s previous government, the administration led by the Democratic Party of Japan, a party not noted for its nationalist tendencies.

The article also rehashes tired innuendos about the source of “Sasakawa’s wealth.” It is a matter of record that the activities of The Nippon Foundation are funded by revenues from the motorboat racing industry. These are public funds and the foundation is accountable by law to a strict policy of transparency. We publish copious amounts of information on our activities and our finances.

Mr. Sasakawa and his team are committed to making a success of his role as special envoy for national reconciliation, working in an even-handed way so that all peoples of Myanmar benefit. I am sorry that this article makes a misguided attempt to imply otherwise.

Tatsuya Tanami

Executive Director
The Nippon Foundation