Guest Column

Japan’s ‘Special Relationship’ With Myanmar Has Abetted Decades of Military Rule

By Bertil Lintner 25 March 2022

In the early years of Myanmar’s independence, March 27 was called Resistance Day. It was held to commemorate the day in 1945 when Aung San and the soldiers of his Burma National Army turned their guns against their former Japanese allies. But perhaps in an attempt to honor the military and not offend the Japanese, it was in the mid-1950s changed to Resistance Day (Armed Forces Day), a name that was retained until the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, when it became Armed Forces Day (Resistance Day) and, under the rule of former dictator General Than Shwe, only Armed Forces Day. The crucial event in 1945 was mentioned only in passing, and, when the celebrations were held for the first time in the new capital Naypyitaw on March 27, 2006, columns of soldiers marched past newly erected, larger than life statues of the three most prominent warrior kings in Myanmar history: Anawratha, Bayinnaung and Alaungpaya.

That those dead kings are a living force was clear from the speech Than Shwe delivered on that day: “Our Tatmadaw [armed forces] should be a worthy heir to the traditions of the capable tatmadaws established by the noble kings Anawratha, Bayinnaung and Alaungpaya.” Democratic reforms were certainly not on his mind, a fact reflected in the name of the new capital. “Naypyitaw” means “capital” or “place of a king” in old-fashioned usage. Even “tatmadaw” literally means “royal force.”

Anawratha was the founder of the first Burmese, or Myanmar, Empire in 1044 AD, while Bayinnaung was the country’s most celebrated warrior king. During his reign, which lasted from 1551 to 1581, he conquered most of the Irrawaddy plain, parts of the Shan plateau and territories as far east as Chiang Mai in present day Thailand. Alaungpaya reigned in the 18th century and was the first king of the Konbaung Dynasty, the third and the last of the Myanmar empires. Myanmar’s military rulers have never explained why the date March 27 would bind those three kings together, but today, the armed forces as an institution, not any past resistance against the Japanese occupiers, is what matters. It could be equally important to maintain a blemish-free relationship with the Japanese right wing, which in the post-independence era—and especially after the 1962 coup—has had cordial ties with the Myanmar military.

Myanmar military chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing  with Chief of Staff, Joint Staff of the Japan Self-Defence Forces General Koji Yamasaki in Japan in 2019.

In 1954, Myanmar signed a peace treaty with Japan and, as part of the agreement, Tokyo agreed to pay US$200 million in war reparations as well as an annual grant of US$5 million for technical assistance. That assistance continued even after democracy was abolished in 1962 and replaced by military rule. Given the economic decline that followed General Ne Win’s 1962 coup and the introduction of the so-called “Burmese [Myanmar] Way to Socialism”, many scholars argue that the Ne Win regime would have folded without it.

Tokyo’s willingness to continue economic assistance to Myanmar could be attributed to the influence of an informal lobby in Japan. For many years, it was led by Nobusuke Kishi, prime minister from 1957-60, and his private secretary and son-in-law, Shintaro Abe, foreign minister from 1983-86. Shintaro Abe’s son, Shinzo Abe, was prime minister from 2006-07 and again from 2012-20.

Another influential Japanese belonging to the Myanmar Lobby was Tadashi Ohtaka, Japan’s ambassador to Myanmar from 1987-90 and whose wife served as chairperson of the Japan-Burma Association (now renamed the Japan-Myanmar Association). During his tenure as ambassador, Ohtaka was the only diplomat given regular access to the then dictator, Ne Win. The Japan-Burma Association counted among its members 11 Japanese trading companies allowed to operate in Yangon and various companies involved in aid projects in the country.

Following years of economic decline, Myanmar’s economy took a slight turn for the better in the 1970s because of rapid expansion in agriculture and increased foreign assistance, mainly from Japan. Myanmar was the eighth-largest recipient of Japanese aid in the 1960s; by 1980, it had become the fourth-largest. Japanese aid peaked at US$244 million, or 6.3 percent of all Japanese overseas assistance. With Japanese aid pouring in for civilian projects, the dictatorship could spend more money and resources on building up the armed forces. By the time of the 1962 coup, there were about 100,000 soldiers under Ne Win’s command. In the 1980s, the number had increased to approximately 190,000. More indigenous defense industries were established, and new weapons were produced with assistance from Fritz Werner, a German company.

By the mid-1980s, a new economic crisis was looming in Myanmar. Japanese aid had kept the country afloat, but, in the end, it failed to revitalize inefficient, state-run enterprises. Worse, Myanmar’s foreign-debt level went through the ceiling. In March 1988, the Japanese decided that economic pragmatism had to take precedence over longstanding personal ties. Tun Tin, then minister of planning and finance, was told during a visit to Tokyo that Japan would reconsider its relations with Myanmar unless fundamental economic reforms were instituted. That was the first time the Japanese unilaterally demanded policy changes on the part of an aid recipient, underlining the importance Tokyo placed on its special relationship with the Myanmar government.

Then Prime Minister Gen. Khin Nyunt (right) meets his Japanese counterpart Junichiro Koizumi in Tokyo on Dec. 11, 2003.

Japan’s new policy on aid, cut off months later in response to the killing of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators, apparently rocked Myanmar’s generals. Japanese pressure is widely believed to be the main influence behind the then junta’s decision to scrap the “Burmese Way to Socialism” and adopt more market-friendly policies. The opportunity to restore relations came at the time of Emperor Hirohito’s funeral in February 1989. According to Myanmar expert David Steinberg: “In order to avoid having the Burmese sit beside unrecognized delegations such as the Palestine Liberation Organization, a decision was made on Feb. 17 to recognize the new [military] government.”

That also opened the floodgates for more Japanese involvement. Western sanctions and boycotts had left a vacuum filled by China, which much to Tokyo’s chagrin replaced Japan as Myanmar’s closest foreign ally. In May 1990, the director of the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s First Southeast Asia Division, Maraharu Kohno, stunned Myanmar’s pro-democracy activists and exiles in Japan by saying at a lecture in Tokyo, “Can we automatically equate military rule with human-rights repression?…I’m not sure [in any case] that repression of human rights in Myanmar is as extensive as reported in the West…because Myanmar has not yet reached the stage of democracy. National security should come first.” Japan may have refrained from funding new aid schemes, but it allowed old ones to continue and support was also provided through UN projects in the country. In 2003, the Japanese even invited Myanmar’s military intelligence chief-turned-prime minister, General Khin Nyunt, to attend the Japan-ASEAN Summit in Tokyo.

No real change took place until after the 2010 election and ex-General Thein Sein’s appointment as president in February 2011. Japan along with Western countries normalized relations with Myanmar. The informal Myanmar Lobby went to work again, and a key person all along has been Yohei Sasakawa. In 2013, the then Shinzo Abe government appointed him Special Envoy of the Government of Japan for National Reconciliation in Myanmar, a post he has retained even after Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s ill-fated attempt to seize power on Feb. 1 last year.

Sasakawa is the son of Ryoichi Sasakawa, once a far-right politician who flew to Italy in 1939 to meet his personal hero, Benito Mussolini. Years later, he expressed regret about not meeting another European leader at that time: “Hitler sent me a cable asking me to wait for him, but unfortunately I didn’t have time.” Ryoichi Sasakawa was imprisoned by the Americans after World War II, but released in 1948 when the occupiers needed the extreme right to counter Japan’s leftist movement.

In the 1950s, Ryoichi Sasakawa managed to secure a monopoly on the only legally permitted gambling in Japan: motorboat racing. As a result, he became immensely wealthy, continued to back extreme right-wing causes, and built up a charity, now called the Nippon Foundation, which gave vast amounts of money to the World Health Organization to help eradicate leprosy. The once-Class A War Criminal in Sugamo Prison in Tokyo became a philanthropist and passed away in 1995 at the age of 96. By then, his son Yohei, after serving as chairman of the Japan Motorboat Racing Association, had become president of the Nippon Foundation.

The Nippon Foundation has been involved in several, largely unsuccessful, attempts to get some kind of peace process going between the military and Myanmar’s many ethnic armed organizations while the Japanese government has cultivated links with the military top brass. In October 2019, Min Aung Hlaing visited Japan at the invitation of Japan’s Ministry of Defense. Japan also initiated a program in which cadets from Myanmar receive combat training, which continues even after last year’s military intervention. On March 20 last year, Human Rights Watch said in a statement: “It’s mind boggling that Japan is providing military training to Myanmar cadets at the same time as its armed forces are committing crimes against humanity against Myanmar’s people.” A spokesman for the Japanese Ministry of Defense, however, told Reuters that any move to cut the partnership with Myanmar’s military could result in China winning more clout. Shinzo Abe is no longer Japan’s prime minister but his younger brother, and Nobusuke Kishi’s grandson, Nobuo Kishi, currently serves as minister of defense.

In December 2021, the 87-year-old former cabinet minister and chairman of the Japan-Myanmar Association, Hideo Watanabe, who once campaigned to bring billions of dollars of investment from some of Japan’s leading companies to Myanmar, urged Tokyo to endorse the new military regime. He caused an even bigger outrage than the Defense Ministry spokesman by saying that Min Aung Hlaing has “grown fantastically as a human being,” while praising his “democratization efforts.”

Watanabe’s son Yusuke Watanabe managed on May 26 last year to get an opinion piece published by the website The Diplomat in which he argued that “Japan must position itself as a bridge between the Tatmadaw and the United States and other democratic countries rather than blindly aligning itself with the Western policy of regime change… Leveraging its decades-long economic cooperation, Japan can now directly work with the Tatmadaw to reverse China’s geoeconomic influence.” He also wrote that he is one of the few foreigners who is “in constant contact with Myanmar’s current de facto leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing…my enduring engagement with him underscores Japan’s near century-long special relationship with Myanmar.”

That “special relationship”—when it comes to aid, investment and involvement in the so-called peace process—has so far resulted in little more than making sure that the Myanmar military remains firmly entrenched in power. Than Shwe and now Min Aung Hlaing may conveniently forget to dwell on the anti-Japanese resistance in 1945 and, instead, praise the old warrior kings Anawratha, Bayinnaung and Alaungpaya, because they know full well that it is the Japanese far-right that since 1962 has been a main benefactor and supporter of continuous military rule in Myanmar.

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