The Japanese Way to Peace in Burma

By Saw Yan Naing 19 March 2013

Yohei Sasakawa, the chairman of the Tokyo-based philanthropic organization the Nippon Foundation, is a man with a mission. As the Japanese government’s recently appointed “special envoy for national reconciliation in Myanmar,” he has taken on the daunting task of helping Burma to achieve peace after decades of ethnic conflict.

The appointment came shortly after the Nippon Foundation granted US $3 million to support humanitarian aid and peace in Burma’s ethnic regions. Soon after being given the position, he said: “There will be no unification and democratization of Myanmar without reconciliation among the different ethnic groups.”

So far, his efforts have been well-received. Naw Susanna Hla Hla Soe, the director of the Rangoon-based Karen Women’s Action Group, said she is glad to see the Nippon Foundation supporting internally displaced persons (IDPs) and others affected by conflict along Burma’s borders. At the same time, however, she said she is worried about money being channeled through the government, which is rife with corruption.

Speaking to The Irrawaddy last week, however, Sasakawa said through a translator that none of the funding it has provided has gone into government hands.

“It is the philosophy of the Nippon Foundation never to give any money to any government. That has been our philosophy and principle that has underlined our activities in the past and in the future as well. We will never give any money to the Myanmar government,” he said.

“The whole distribution is totally managed by us. That is, we go out and distribute rice and medicine directly. The entire process is totally done by ourselves,” he added.

Some, however, still feel that the foundation’s emphasis on money—it recently announced that the Japanese government would provide an additional $300 million in aid, at least some of which will be disbursed through the Nippon Foundation—is a misguided approach to solving Burma’s complex ethnic issues.

“Throwing money at the problem is not a promising start, but for IDPs it is helpful. I think the real issue here is greater autonomy for regions and a federal system,” said Jeff Kingston, the director of Asian Studies at Temple University in Tokyo, and an expert on Japanese foreign relations.

“Providing $3 million is good for PR but it doesn’t seem like there is a well thought out plan or deep understanding of the ethnic problems,” he added, while noting that the foundation has done some good work such as helping to eradicate leprosy and supporting many other humanitarian projects in Burma.

A Japanese journalist who asked not to be named also described Sasakawa’s approach as “naive,” saying that it would do little to resolve Burma’s complex ethnic issues. “He seems to think that if minorities start getting rich and everybody has a job, the minorities will just forget about waging war with the government,” he said.

Another problem, the journalist said, is that Sasakawa is widely regarded as a Japanese nationalist whose political sympathies are more with the Burman-dominated government than with ethnic minorities, in part because ethnic Burmans fought alongside the Japanese Imperial Army against the British colonialists during World War II, while the ethnic Karen helped the British to fight the Japanese.

However, Sasakawa denied that he is taking an active role in the peace process, emphasizing that the Nippon Foundation’s agenda is purely humanitarian, and not involved in Burma’s economic and political affairs, which he said the country’s people must resolve for themselves.

“It is vitally important to have a trust-building process between armed minority groups and the Myanmar government. I believe that both parties have to build trust among themselves. This is a process that no foreign person has the right to interfere in,” said Sasakawa.

Despite such denials, however, Sasakawa has clearly long had an interest in making contact with Burma’s main political players. Even before a nominally civilian government took power two years ago, Sasakawa met both former dictator Snr-Gen Than Shwe and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Sasakawa is also very well-connected in Japan, where he is known to be close to the current prime minister, Shinzo Abe, who is also regarded as a staunch nationalist.

“I am not surprised that the Japanese government appointed Yohei Sasakawa for [his mission in Burma], as Prime Minister Abe is close to the Sasakawa network,” said Karoline Postel-Vinay, a senior research fellow at the Paris Institute of Political Studies’ Center for International Studies and Research, who has written about the Sasakawa family’s links to conservative political circles in Japan.

The source of Sasakawa’s wealth—amassed by his father, Ryoichi Sasakawa, a suspected Class A war criminal who later went on to win major gambling concessions in post-war Japan—is another reason some regard his philanthropic efforts with some suspicion.

Whatever his reputation in Japan, however, it may be Sasakawa’s ties with the generals who previously ruled Burma that prove to be the greatest obstacle to his success in the country now.

Facilitating peace between the Burmese government and ethnic armed groups may not be an easy task for Sasakawa, said Kingston, because “He might be viewed as too close to the former regime.”