Japan and the Peace Process in Burma

By Myint Thin 2 January 2013

At a brief, low-key ceremony in Moulmein on Dec. 22 of last year, 50 tonnes of rice, together with boxes of Western and local herbal medicines—altogether worth US $64,000—were given to representatives of internally displaced communities under the watchful eyes of Mon State Chief Minister Ohn Myint and the Burmese government’s chief peace negotiator with ethnic minority groups, Aung Min.

The handover event represented the first time that a foreign NGO had ever been permitted to deliver direct humanitarian aid to affected peoples belonging to various ethnic armed groups inside Burma. It was also the first time that Japan’s Nippon Foundation (NF) had ever directly taken part in the peace and reconciliation process.

Two months earlier, Yohei Sasakawa, the NF chairman, was appointed “goodwill ambassador for the welfare of the national races in Myanmar” by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It was a calculated and timely move by Tokyo, which wanted to back a Japanese non-official organization to contribute to the peace and national reconciliation process in Burma. The NF was the right choice, as it has been establishing healthcare programs inside the country for years. Over the past four months, NF staff members, including Sasakawa, have met with executives from the 11 ethnic groups belonging to the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

U Myint Thin is a Burmese pseudonym for a veteran Thai journalist residing in Rangoon. His regular column, Across Irrawaddy, appears every Wednesday.
Myint Thin is a Burmese pseudonym for a veteran Thai journalist residing in Rangoon. His regular column, Across Irrawaddy, appears every Wednesday.
Myint Thin is a Burmese pseudonym for a veteran Thai journalist residing in Rangoon. His regular column, Across Irrawaddy, appears every Wednesday.

The international community has long been interested in the ceasefire and reconciliation process inside Burma. Donor countries have urged the government to work together with all ethnic minorities to help with the reforms and democratization. Norway took the lead early last year by backing the Myanmar Peace Support Initiative (MPSI), which aims to support the ongoing efforts by Naypyidaw and the non-state armed groups. This government-led initiative implements agreements reached by the government and various armed groups. Apart from providing emergency assistance, the NF seeks dialogue with armed groups, especially the ones with which the government needs to improve access and trust-building.

According to Sasakawa, the NF’s priority is to save lives and provide emergency aid to meet the needs of all internally displaced persons (IDPs). After years of providing assistance to Burma, especially for leprosy and other healthcare projects, the foundation has expanded its work to cover the minorities. Due to the ongoing fighting along the border between government forces and ethnic armed groups, the foundation estimated there are at least one million IDPs throughout the country. According to the latest figure from the Thai-Burma Border Consortium, at least at 400,000 displaced persons are living along the Thai-Burmese border in Shan, Karen, Karenni and Mon states and Pegu and Tenasserim divisions. On Oct. 6, 2012, Naypyidaw signed a memorandum of understanding with the NF to allow the direct emergency assistance delivery.

Following appeals from the UNFC for emergency aid for IDPs deep inside the border areas since August, Naypyidaw has agreed to allow the NF to send humanitarian assistance to the affected persons living in areas under the control of ethnic minorities groups. To sustain the peace progress and dividends, the NF decided in October during a meeting in Tokyo to allocate a budget of  $3 million for humanitarian assistance. “We would like to make sure that they have received direct assistance as they are making peace,” Sasakawa said in Rangoon recently. “This is an Asian way. I myself attended all meetings and met all the ethnic leaders.” He said his direct involvement from the first day has given added confidence to the ethnic minority groups.

Getting emergency aid and medicine to remote ethnic-controlled areas is a big challenge due to the lack of road access, especially from within Burma. The NF has continued to discuss with representatives of the ethnic minorities how to establish safe and fast delivery routes for each group, both from inside the country and along the Thai-Burmese border.

It is interesting to watch how the government in Naypyidaw is approaching the peace talks and humanitarian assistance with the minorities now that there is a regular Asian observer. This is something new. Due to Sasakawa’s own interest in helping with the reconciliation process inside Burma, its senior officials handling peace talks, such as Aung Win and Gen Soe Thein, have placed confidence in his role. Other international relief organizations are also ready to provide humanitarian assistance to controlled areas once they have similar permissions.

In early December, Sasakawa was invited for the first time to observe peace talks between the Burmese government and the Chin National Front. Other minorities groups have also invited him to observe their peace talks with the government. He plans to observe future talks with New Mon State Party, the Pa-o National Liberation Organization and the UNFC. Other remaining groups have pledged to do the same.

The jury is still out on how an Asian NGO can assist in this delicate and complicated process. One thing is obvious: besides the government efforts, other third-party assistance, both official and informal, is working in parallel to ensure that there is permanent ceasefire and peace-building inside Burma.