The Irrawaddy

West’s Call for Sanctions Is ‘Utter Nonsense’: Japanese Ambassador

Japanese Ambassador to Myanmar Ichiro Maruyama. / Soe Tun Thein / The Irrawaddy

YANGON—Japan is completely opposed to efforts by some countries to impose trade sanctions against Myanmar over the Rohingya issue, believing such a move would seriously hurt ordinary people while doing nothing to resolve the crisis, the Japanese ambassador to Myanmar said.

Myanmar has come under mounting international criticism since last year, when nearly 700,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh to escape the military’s security clearance operation in northern Rakhine State. The clearance operation was triggered by a series of attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on security outposts in the area. The government has denounced ARSA as terrorist group.

Since the exodus, Western countries have called for action against the Myanmar government and military, including trade sanctions and the referral of senior military leaders to the International Criminal Court (ICC). In the meantime, the European Union is considering withdrawal of the trade preferences it extends to Myanmar under the “everything but arms” (EBA) scheme. If that happens, rights groups point out, more than 400,000 Myanmar people, most of them female garment workers, would be in serious danger of losing their livelihoods.

Dismissing the campaign as “utter nonsense”, Ambassador Ichiro Maruyama told The Irrawaddy in an exclusive interview that imposing trade sanctions would destabilize Myanmar both economically and politically, with workers bearing the brunt of the impact.

“Frankly speaking, Japan totally disagrees with other countries that are considering clamping a trade embargo against Myanmar,” he said.

If the EU’s trade preferences are ended, the ambassador feared it would be workers who will pay the price.

“If imposing sanctions was the only way to solve the Rakhine issue, we would join the bandwagon,” he said. However, Tokyo’s view is that such a drastic response will only “fuel the situation.”

Maruyama stressed that the international community, including Japan, has a common goal to help Myanmar’s democratic transition succeed. However, there are differing views about which policy will best achieve that goal.

With Myanmar State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi struggling with international criticism over what many in the West see as her insufficient response to crimes committed against the Rohingya, Japan is playing a mediator role in the repatriation process and is working closely with Naypyitaw to solve the problems in Rakhine State.

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono has visited Myanmar twice this year; his trips have focused on discussions of the resettlement of Rohingya and humanitarian aid to Rakhine State.

In January, Tokyo extended Emergency Grant Aid of 330 million yen (USD3 million) to Myanmar to assist displaced persons returning from Bangladesh.

Japanese investment in Myanmar peaked at USD1.48 billion in 2017. This year, it is the 10th-largest foreign investor in the country.

“We believe it’s very important for Myanmar, which now has a democratically elected government after more than 50 years, to solve the issues it faces. We engage with Myanmar based on this belief,” Maruyama said.

Apart from trade sanctions, Myanmar’s military has come under international pressure for its handling of the Rohingya situation. A UN Fact Finding Mission (FFM) recommended that military commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and his subordinates be referred to the ICC for ethnic cleansing and acting with “genocidal intent” against the Rohingya. Last month, the UN Human Rights Council voted to set up a body to prepare evidence for use in any future prosecution brought by the ICC.

The ambassador expressed concern about such calls for Myanmar’s military leadership to be referred to the ICC, saying they could derail efforts to resolve the Rakhine issue.

“To settle the case, it could only be possible when there is a collaboration between the NLD-led government and the military, he said, referring to Myanmar’s ruling National League for Democracy.

The ambassador emphasized the complexity of the Rakhine issue, pointing out the sharp divide between international and local opinions on the issue—a major departure from the past, when the local and international communities stood on same side against the military regime.

Given this complexity, Maruyama said, there was no quick fix for the issue. Therefore, if the Myanmar government attempts to patiently solve the problem, Japan will support it as best it can while listening to the people’s voices, he said.

“We will try to help organizations like the UN and the international community understand the government’s voice, because only doing so can [gradually] bring positive outcomes… We believe so.”