Suu Kyi and Japan: Tokyo Love Story or Battle Royale?

By Aung Zaw 6 May 2016

This week, state-run newspapers splashed Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida’s photo with Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi all over their front pages. But beneath the smiles and handshakes, there is a history of discord.

After the political opening in 2011 and 2012, Japan moved quickly to resume aid and investment to Burma—including development of the Thilawa Special Economic Zone (SEZ), a 2,400-hectare industrial zone in southeast Rangoon Division. Japan’s Nippon Foundation also provided funds for Burma’s peace-building process and general aid to the previous government.

Suu Kyi was opposed to this aid and investment from Japan during the junta’s reign because she saw it as bolstering the repressive regime that ruled over the country with an iron fist.

But like the Chinese government, which developed even closer relations with the regime, Tokyo was not deterred by her stance.

Japan, however, is recognizing that it might have to change its ways to deal with the new reality of Suu Kyi in power.

After Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won a landslide victory in the national elections, Japanese businesses were worried. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had not developed close ties with Suu Kyi. But less than three weeks after the election, Abe invited a high-level NLD official to Tokyo.

On Nov. 27, Nyan Win, central executive committee member of the NLD, met with Foreign Minister Kishida in Tokyo. Nyan Win asked for more investment and technological assistance from the world’s No. 3 economy.

This week in Naypyidaw, Kishida first met with Suu Kyi, who also serves as Burma’s state counselor. They spent more than an hour discussing issues related to aid, business, development projects and peace-building efforts with Burma’s ethnic armed organizations. Afterwards, the Japanese foreign minister met with President Htin Kyaw, Suu Kyi’s confidant. That meeting lasted only 15 minutes.

Given Suu Kyi’s personal ties to Japan, a relationship with the East Asian power could blossom.

She was a visiting scholar at Kyoto University in 1985-86, where she made some Japanese friends, but none of them were from the business community. And when she returned to Japan in April 2013 after Burma began opening up, she met Abe.

In the early 1940s, Suu Kyi’s late father, Gen. Aung San, Burma’s independence hero, received military training from the Japanese Army and even adopted a Japanese name, Omoda Monji.

He and his compatriots, the legendary “Thirty Comrades,” received arms and financial support from the Japanese Army to fight the British, who were then ruling Burma. Under Japanese occupation, Aung San became war minister, but he subsequently decided to revolt against the draconian Japanese regime after joining forces with the Allies during World War II.

In the 1960s, Gen. Ne Win, one of the “Thirty Comrades,” sought to cultivate closer relations with Tokyo. Throughout his 26-year rule, the Ne Win regime received aid and loans from Japan, as well as post-war reparations. At the time, the Japanese viewed Burma as a country with high economic potential.

But then came the tumultuous late 1980s, and Suu Kyi was put under house arrest. While there in the 1990s, Suu Kyi was critical of Japan’s economic engagement with the repressive Burmese regime. After she was freed from house arrest in 1995, the Japanese newspaper Mainichi Shimbun published Suu Kyi’s “Letters from Burma.” In her letters, she did not hide her opposition to Japan’s Burma policy.

Interestingly, Japan was the first country to be informed of her release, and subsequently the Japanese government agreed to resume Official Development Assistance (ODA). It appears that Suu Kyi’s release was somehow a bargaining chip in the aid deal. Nonetheless, publicly, she advised Tokyo to hold off on its aid package.

“If it is a reward for my release, I’m just one political prisoner, there are others still in jail,” she told a correspondent from the now-defunct Far Eastern Economic Review at the time. “Changing the conditions of one person is not enough to merit the renewal of aid.”

In addition to the traditional aid package, the Japanese provided a grant in the notorious Golden Triangle, where they wanted to promote eradication of opium poppy cultivation in the Kokang region through crop substitution. They introduced the cultivation of buckwheat, which is used in Japanese soba noodle production.

Suu Kyi was frustrated. In April 1996, less than one year after her release, she wrote in the Mainichi Shimbun: “To observe businessmen who come to Burma with the intention of enriching themselves is somewhat like watching passers-by in an orchard brutally stripping off blossoms to appreciate their fragile beauty, blind to the ugliness of the despoiled branches, oblivious to the fact that by their action they are imperiling future fruitfulness and committing an injustice against the rightful owners of the trees. Among these despoilers are big Japanese companies.”

In June 1996, Suu Kyi sent a letter to then Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto via the Japanese Embassy in Rangoon, asking Tokyo to exercise its economic power to push for democratization in Burma as stipulated in the ODA guidelines. She received no reply.

Meanwhile, in Japan, there appeared a flurry of Suu Kyi-bashing articles written by businessmen and government officials close to the Burmese regime. It was obvious that some powerful people in Japan felt Suu Kyi was an obstacle to doing business and carrying out aid in Burma.

But now Suu Kyi is in power. Burma has seen dramatic political changes over the past five years.

“We’ll cooperate with the Myanmar government to create a climate that will benefit both the people of Myanmar and Japanese businesses,” the visiting Japanese foreign minister said, specifically pointing out his country’s ambition to spur job creation and bolster the development of Burma’s agricultural, education, finance, health care and infrastructure sectors.

“Japan will do as much as it can to help Myanmar in its process of national reconciliation,” Kishida added, stating a desire to help the former pariah state re-engage internationally.

In her role as foreign minister, Suu Kyi expressed her appreciation for the “support and kindness expressed by the people of Japan” for Burma. Through Kishida, Abe invited her to Japan and sent her a personal letter.

But Japan is not alone in courting the new powers that be in Naypyidaw.

Shortly after the NLD formed a government, it was Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi who paid a surprise visit to Burma at the invitation of Suu Kyi.

And last year, a few months before the election, Suu Kyi was in China, where President Xi Jinping received her—some called it a massive diplomatic breakthrough because it was Beijing that had invited the then-opposition leader. No doubt China, one of the top investors in Burma, wanted to bet on Suu Kyi. The question for them is: Will she protect China’s business and strategic interests in Burma? Through Wang, Xi extended another invitation to Suu Kyi last month.

The ministry has not yet announced Suu Kyi’s itinerary for overseas visits, but look out to see which of the two countries she travels to first, China or Japan. That decision could be a major sign of things to come in Suu Kyi’s bumpy relationship with Japan.

Aung Zaw is founding editor of The Irrawaddy.