Tokyo Calling

By The Irrawaddy 30 September 2014

Last week, Burma Army Commander-in-Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing paid his first official visit to Japan at the invitation of General Shigeru Iwasaki, Chief of Staff of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces. This marked the first visit by a commander-in-chief to Tokyo since Gen Ne Win visited Japan in the 1960s.

The recent visit will be seen as part of the Burmese armed forces’ outreach to allies—new and old— after the political opening in the country. Under Ne Win’s socialist government, Japan was Burma’s largest donor but scaled down its assistance and aid programs after the US and other Western nations imposed sanctions on the regime following the crackdown on the 1988 democracy uprising.

But after recent reforms in Burma, Tokyo has not missed the chance to renew its old friendship, including by boosting defense ties between the two nations.

In May, Japan’s military chief, Gen. Shigeru Iwasaki, met with President Thein Sein in Naypyidaw where the two officials reaffirmed their countries’ goals of enhancing defense cooperation and exchanges at all levels.

During his four-day visit, the Japanese general also met with Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, holding discussions on security issues in the Asia-Pacific region, including Japan’s sovereignty row with China over the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, as well as territorial disputes in the South China Sea, where China has been aggressively asserting its claims.

The Japanese Defense Ministry released a statement at the time saying that the two generals discussed bilateral defense cooperation and agreed on “the importance of exchanges at every level between the Self-Defense Forces and Myanmar Armed Forces.”

During his recent trip, Min Aung Hlaing also paid a visit to the tomb of the late wartime Japanese officer Col Suzuki Keiji and his old residence.

Col. Suzuki, who ran a special operations directorate known as Minami Kikan, played a key role in British-ruled Burma during the early stages of World War II when late independence hero Gen Aung San, then a young nationalist fugitive, sought overseas military assistance to liberate the country.

When he was in Amoy, now known as Xiamen, in southern China, Japanese intelligence officers intercepted Aung San. There, the young nationalist leader met Col Suzuki who convinced him to receive military assistance from the Japanese for an uprising in Burma. Col Suzuki, whose Burmese name was Bo Mogyo (Thunder), had earned the respect and trust of Burmese nationalists.

Aung San subsequently brought a group of young men known as the legendary “Thirty Comrades” to be trained by Japanese officers in 1941. This was the beginning of the Burma Independence Army or BIA.

The Kempeitai (the Japanese army’s military police) and other sections of Japan’s security forces also trained Ne Win, one of the “Thirty Comrades” who became chairman of the now defunct Burma Socialist Programme Party. Many officers who were trained by Japanese forces in the early 1940s also served as ministers in the Ne Win government.

Ne Win maintained close relations with Suzuki and Minami Kikan members until Suzuki passed away in 1967.

In 1981, Ne Win bestowed the remaining six veterans of Minami Kikan with honorary awards—the Aung San Tagun or ‘Order of Aung San’—at the presidential palace in Rangoon. Colonel Suzuki’s widow showed up for the ceremony. Even after he resigned as party chairman in 1988, Ne Win held gatherings of old Minami Kikan members as late as the mid-1990s.

Japanese forces invaded Burma from Thailand to liberate the country from the British in 1942. Burma was then under Japanese occupation, headed by a puppet government. Aung San then formed an anti-fascist organization and joined with British and allied forces to drive out the Japanese in 1945.

During the war, Japan lost 190,000 soldiers in Burma. Thus, it is safe to say that Burma holds a special place in many Japanese hearts.

With the recent opening in Burma, it is also part of Burma’s strategic interests to balance against its powerful neighbor, China. Naypyidaw hasn’t wasted any time patching up, or initiating, relations with former or prospective allies. Since assuming the position of commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Min Aung Hlaing has visited several countries in the region including the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, and Thailand (twice), and is currently visiting South Korea.

Last year saw significant developments in Japan-Burma relations. In May 2013, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Burma, the first visit by a Japanese PM since 1977. During the visit, Abe wrote off nearly US$2 billion in debt and pledged up to US$498.5 million in new loans. Thein Sein then travelled to Japan in December. Training vessels from Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force also made a first ever port call to Burma, for a five-day mission, in September.