Features | Diplomacy | Southeast Asia

Japan and Myanmar’s Toxic Friendship

Japan’s appeasement policy toward Myanmar, driven by geopolitics and disregard for human rights, is supporting the Rohingya genocide.

By Yuzuki Nagakoshi for
Japan and Myanmar’s Toxic Friendship

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, right, shakes hands with Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi prior to the Japan-Mekong Summit Meeting at the Akasaka Palace State Guest House in Tokyo, Oct. 9, 2018.

Credit: Frank Robichon/Pool Photo via AP

Myanmar offered the starving Japanese people affordable rice in the early 1950s, when Japan was struggling to recover from World War II. Japan is paying the people back by supporting Myanmar’s apartheid regime against the Rohingya.

The 2016-17 violence that bore the hallmarks of genocide was only a tip of the iceberg of the Myanmar government’s longstanding discriminatory policies. Marzuki Darusman, the head of the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, stated in October 2019 that Myanmar is still failing to prevent, investigate, and effectively criminalize genocide. The threat of extreme violence recurring is real. Myanmar has perpetrated rounds of violence since the 1970s, and the international community failed to protect the Rohingya every time.

In the International Court of Justice proceedings that The Gambia brought against Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi denied the allegations that genocide is ongoing in her country. She portrayed the situation as an armed conflict, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism operations, and intercommunal violence, without any genocidal intent involved. Apart from the time she referred to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, she never used the word “Rohingya” in her speech — following the official policy of her government, which claims that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and not native to Myanmar. That the Rohingya are illegal immigrants is a fully debunked yet common misbelief among people in Myanmar and such a notion underlies the disenfranchisement and persecution of the Rohingya.

Despite the United Nation’s repeated calls for vigilance toward the situation in Myanmar and Myanmar’s wholesale denial of genocide, Japan has been appeasing the country. Japan was the first country to support Myanmar in the ICJ case. The Japanese ambassador to Myanmar, Ichiro Maruyama, stated in a press conference in Yangon on December 26 that “his government firmly believes that no genocide was committed in the country” and prays and hopes that the “ICJ will not issue a ruling for provisional measures” against Myanmar. If the ICJ issues such measures, he says, “Japan will look at ways to help Myanmar handle the process smoothly.” As the country most affected by the mass influx of Rohingya refugees who cross the Myanmar-Bangladesh border. Bangladesh protested against Japan’s position.

Another symbolic episode that shows Japan’s utter disregard for Rohingya human rights happened in mid-August. In an interview with BBC Burma published on August 19, Maruyama referred to the Rohingya as “Bengali” – a derogatory term that falsely indicates that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Myanmar is in the process of transformation, hopefully from a totalitarian country ruled by the military into a democratic country governed by civilians in a way that is compliant with the rule of law. Democracy, rule of law, and civilian government are some of the core aspects that define good governance. But democratization increases the stake of the answer to the problem of who gets to be included in the political decision-making process. Therefore, democratization could lead to increased racial tensions and the othering of ethnic minorities so as to exclude them from the political process.

According to a survey by the Japanese foreign ministry, the Myanmar people perceived Japan to be the country’s most important partner and the most trustworthy country. Japan has, however, abused the Myanmar people’s trust and sabotaged international cooperation in pressuring the civilian government and the Myanmar military to correct its wrongs – all based on Tokyo’s shortsighted view of geopolitical and economic interest. Japan’s attempt to augment its international presence must be accompanied by an enhanced sense of responsibility as the guardian and promoter for fundamental human rights.

Japan’s Geopolitical Interest in Asia’s Last Frontier

The friendship between Japan and Myanmar is driven strongly by Japanese geopolitical interests. Fierce competition exists between the Asian economic giants – mainly Japan and China – over Asia’s “last frontier,” Myanmar. Japan has been offering Myanmar assistance to distance Naypyitaw from Beijing. Rakhine state is one of the forefronts of such competition. Beijing is working toward building a deep-water port in Rakhine state, where the violence against the Rohingya is ongoing. Tokyo supported the Rakhine State Investment Fair in February 2019 to encourage investment in the state.

Ostensibly, the Japanese policy of noninterference with the genocide is based on respect for Myanmar’s policy choices and meant to support Myanmar through its development process. Japan has been an important economic partner of Myanmar: It is Myanmar’s sixth-largest direct investor, the third-largest importer of Myanmar products, and the seventh-largest exporter to Myanmar. Moreover, Japan has not imposed any sanctions against Myanmar military officials or any trade restrictions against Myanmar, calling calls for sanctions an “utter nonsense.” In fluent Burmese, the Japanese ambassador said that Japan always wants to be a “good friend” of Myanmar and therefore supports Myanmar’s economic and political development by maintaining relationships rather than imposing sanctions.

The Japanese Government’s Contribution to the Rohingya Genocide

In the name of its geopolitical interests, Japan has been contributing to the Rohingya genocide in a number of ways.

First, Tokyo has failed to even acknowledge the Rohingya as an ethnic minority. The Japanese government refers to the Rohingya as “the Muslims in Rakhine,” “Rohingya (Bangladeshi Muslims),” or “Muslims” (as opposed to “Rakhine Buddhists”). The purpose of refusing to call the Rohingya by the names they use to identify themselves is to remain “neutral” in the matter, according to then-Foreign Minister Taro Konno, who offered his opinion in a blog post in March 2018. Japanese Ambassador Maruyama’s use of the derogatory term “Bengali” was not an anomaly or a mistake — it reflected a longstanding Japanese policy to turn a blind eye to the Myanmar government’s apartheid policy and genocide.

Japan has also opposed the establishment of the Independent Fact-Finding Mission and supported Myanmar in creating their own fact-finding mission, reportedly to maintain its access to the large Myanmar market. Japan sent a former U.N. under-secretary general to serve Myanmar’s own Independent Commission of Enquiry (ICOE), which was cited by Aung San Suu Kyi in her opening statement at the ICJ as evidence of an existence of a functioning mechanism to hold soldiers or officers accountable for possible war crimes. The ICOE, however, is not a mechanism to hold anyone accountable. In fact, its chairperson openly stated that finger pointing, blaming, or saying “you’re accountable” is a bad approach to solving the problem. Supporting such a mechanism is only helping Myanmar in escaping its accountability.

Japan’s ambivalent approach was on display when a Japanese beverage company was called out by Amnesty International for its Myanmar subsidiary making a donation to the Tatmadaw during a public donation ceremony in the midst of reports of the violence against the Rohingya. The company made three donations totaling $30,000 between September and October 2017. The Japanese company has 55 percent ownership of the subsidiary, Myanmar Brewery, and had been involved in making donation decisions through the managing director on placement from the Japanese parent company.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

The Japanese company reviewed its subsidiaries’ donations policy in response to the crisis and updated their charitable donations and volunteering policy. Under the new policy, beneficiaries must be clearly identified, and the recipient organization must be politically neutral and work for all members of the community. The use of the donated funds must be recorded and shared with the subsidiary upon request.

However, such measures are insufficient as means for compensating for the harm that the unethical and likely illegal conduct caused and holding people who made the decision accountable. The use of funding donated during the 2017 mass violence has not been identified, and no reports exist as to how the parent or subsidiary took responsibility for this donation.

Such conduct may even trigger international criminal liability, as Chris Sidoti of the U.N. Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar has stated. Companies are immune from criminal prosecution under the International Criminal Court Statute, but its leaders are not. By donating money to the Tatmadaw during the 2017 violence, foreign companies aided and abetted the crimes of forced deportation, persecution, or even genocide through providing the means for the its commission.

By failing to take action against Japanese parent companies of Myanmar subsidiaries that donated money to the Tatmadaw amidst reports of ongoing genocide, the Japanese government may be violating its international obligations. Japan is not party to the genocide convention (ostensibly because there is the prohibition of incitement of genocide under the Convention is incompatible with the freedom of expression guaranteed under the Japanese Constitution and revisions of domestic law might become necessary), but the duty to prevent genocide and punish the perpetrators forms part of customary international law, from which states cannot derogate.

The Question of Sanctions

Japan has opposed economic sanctions, saying that such a “drastic” response would only “fuel the situation.” However, the failure in taking any measures seems to stem from Japan’s economic interest. The Japanese government reportedly sees the other countries’ economic sanctions as a chance to better Japanese companies’ competitiveness in the Myanmar market.

Indeed, Japan is actively involved in the development of resource-rich Rakhine state, where the Rohingya have been confined in “open-air prisons” for the crime of being Rohingya. Over a million Rohingya have been gruesomely expelled from the state. In February 2019, the Japanese embassy to Myanmar and the Japan International Cooperation Agency co-hosted the Rakhine State Investment Fair in the state, amid land grabs from the Rohingya to make space for foreign and domestic investors.

It may be true as a general statement, as some suggest, that broad economic sanctions would only punish the poor who rely on export-related industries and would push Myanmar to be more dependent on China. If that happens, Myanmar would be less vulnerable to international sanctions and criticisms. However, not participating in or opposing targeted sanctions would send the wrong message that Myanmar’s persecution of the Rohingya is permissible or that the international community is willing to turn a blind eye to these gross human rights violations.

In October 2019, Japan’s Ministry of Defense officially invited Min Aung Hlaing, the highest-ranked Myanmar military official who bears the “greatest responsibility” for the international crimes in Rakhine state, according to the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar. He is on the U.S. sanctions list. His Twitter account, which features tweets referring to the Rohingya as Bengali and denying the occurrence of atrocities, was suspended for hate speech.

Despite his expressed disregard for fundamental human rights and leading role in the Rohingya genocide, Min Aung Hlaing received a warm welcome from the Japanese government. He met Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who expressed his appreciation of Min Aung Hlaing’s tolerance in dealing with the Rakhine situation. Abe further urged him to take leadership in taking appropriate measures according to Myanmar’s ICOE. To expect the alleged commander of genocide to effectively deal with his own crime is preposterous.

Instead, to start with, Japan can join the United States and EU in imposing sanctions in a more targeted way, for example, by targeting senior military officials. Furthermore, Japan can also join in sanctions on companies that are related to the military, as identified by the UN Independent Fact-Finding Mission. Just because broad economic sanctions may have negative side effects to civilians does not mean that Japan should not take targeted measures against the military or at least cease active support toward military officials who are suspected of committing grave international crimes.

Supporting Myanmar in Its Transition to an Inclusive Democracy

It is mere wishful thinking that the Myanmar government or military would automatically change course and become more inclusive and less oppressive as Myanmar economically develops and becomes more democratic. Democratization without accompanying protection for minorities may make matters worse; democracy, at its core, is a way of governing where the majority prevails. Some observe that “democratization processes in themselves can lead to a period of collective violence,” often linked to inter-racial conflict.

Violence not only harms the Rohingya and other persecuted ethnic minorities. Extreme violence by command may scar the direct perpetrators, who may have ethical objections to such commands but nevertheless be coerced into action. The author has personally heard from former military trainees that the Tatmadaw has been engaging in extrajudicial execution of its own soldiers when they do not obey their superiors’ command to engage in unlawful violence.

So far, for Japan being good friends seems to mean letting Myanmar’s egregious violence and other gross human rights violations slide as internal policy decisions that foreign powers should stay away from. Giving developing countries space to grow and allow some lapse in judgment may be a sound international aid policy as a general principle. But the human rights violations committed against the Rohingya are so gruesome that every government should oppose and act against them. Japan should lead Myanmar into a path of stable democracy and respect for human rights — because that is what a true friend would do.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Yuzuki Nagakoshi, Ph.D. is an international and comparative law scholar based in Arusha, Tanzania. Her current research areas are international human rights law and international criminal law. Recent works include “Repatriated to ‘Prison’: Landgrabbing as a tool of segregation in Myanmar.”