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Japan’s Ambivalent Diplomacy in Myanmar

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Japan’s Ambivalent Diplomacy in Myanmar

Given its political and economic influence over the Myanmar military, the Japanese government can do more to help the international community pursue non-military R2P options.

Japan’s Ambivalent Diplomacy in Myanmar

Anti-coup protesters hold signs that refer to R2P, which means Responsibility to Protect, during a gathering in Ahlone township in Yangon, Myanmar Monday, April 12, 2021.

Credit: AP Photo

More than three months have passed since the military coup in Myanmar, but the turmoil of rallies and crackdowns has not come to a halt yet. On February 1, military leaders seized power and detained the country’s civilian leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi and other members of the National League for Democracy (NLD). As a result, military commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing took power in place of the NLD leaders. Military leaders declared a state of emergency and announced they would hold a “free and fair election.” A large number of citizens protested against the military takeover, leading to a violent crackdown.

In response to the coup, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan (MOFA) immediately expressed its grave concern over the situation. The Japanese government urged the Myanmar military to release detained civilian leaders and to swiftly restore the democratic political system in Myanmar. Likewise, Japan endorsed the the G7 Foreign Ministers’ Statement, made with jointly with Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States, as well as the High Representative of the European Union (EU), condemning the coup.

On February 21, the Japanese Foreign Ministry condemned the shooting of protestors by the Myanmar military and police. In addition, the Japanese government strongly urged the military to immediately stop the violence. On March 28, the government expressed its stronger condemnation for the violent crackdown by the Myanmar military and police. Japan joined in global condemnation of human rights violations in Myanmar.

The United States, the United Kingdom, and the EU have all placed economic sanctions on individuals and groups involved in the military coup. Australia has suspended its defense cooperation program with Myanmar. 

Japan, however, decided to suspend new official development assistance (ODA) to Myanmar as a measure against the coup. Tokyo has been the top ODA contributor to Myanmar, and in fiscal year 2019, its ODA to Myanmar amounted to 189.3 billion yen ($1.8 billion) in total. But the Japanese government is determined not to place explicit sanctions against the Myanmar military.

Tokyo fears that if Japan takes punitive actions against the Myanmar military, it might drive Myanmar closer to China. For this reason, Japan has been criticized for its “invisible diplomacy” and inaction with regard to adding sanctions against the military.

So far, more than 750 civilians including women and children have been killed in Myanmar. The youngest fatality caused by the Myanmar military and police was a 6-year-old girl who was shot as she was running to her father. In order to prevent further violence and tragedy, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) held a summit meeting in Jakarta, Indonesia on April 24, and issued a joint statement calling for the cessation of the military violence in Myanmar. However, the ASEAN statement is not legally binding, and as long as the detention of civilian leaders continues, a main trigger of the ongoing violence remains.

If the ASEAN statement is not able to affect the situation, an international intervention based on the concept of “responsibility to protect” (R2P) might be pursued in the case of Myanmar. The R2P principle was affirmed at the 2005 high-level United Nations World Summit. Basically, a sovereign state is responsible for protecting its own civilians, but when the country has no will or ability to protect its people, the international community, through the United Nations, has the responsibility to protect civilians from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. It has been debated that the R2P concept is incongruous with the “principle of non-interference” in the domestic affairs of other countries, and hence, China and Russia have opposed any international intervention into the Myanmar crisis. The ASEAN member states moreover tend to hide behind the non-interference principle. The international community more broadly has been criticized by some analysts as “standing, slack-jawed, watching events pass it by.”

Through the experience of genocides in Rwanda and Srebrenica, the international community came to the realization that the principle of non-interference is not suitable justification for inaction in the case of violation of international humanitarian law. In other words, it is fair to argue that the R2P doctrine overrides the non-interference principle in the case of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. In the case of the Myanmar crisis, the military’s violence has “likely” met “the legal threshold for crimes against humanity.” Some protesters in Myanmar have called for international intervention, carrying placards reading, “We Need R2P in Myanmar.”

Having said that, R2P does not necessarily entail the use of force or military intervention. Former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans explicitly opposed the option of military intervention in Myanmar in the name of R2P, because any military intervention in Myanmar might cause the situation to further deteriorate, even if it is authorized by the United Nations Security Council. Therefore, a military intervention in Myanmar should be a last resort. Before then, the international community would be able to opt for the following four non-military tools of R2P, such as 1) diplomatic rebukes through a resolution, 2) targeted sanctions, 3) arms embargo, and 4) judicial action through a referral to the International Criminal Court as suggested by Evans and former UN Assistant Secretary-General Ramesh Thakur.

In the face of the human rights abuses in Myanmar, the Japanese government has been expected and pressured to take concrete actions rather than verbally criticizing the human rights abuses. Since Japan has economic and political influence over the military and civilian leaders in Myanmar, over 1,000 Myanmar nationals staying in Japan protested against the military coup in front of the United Nations University in Tokyo on February 1, and 3,000 Myanmar protesters rallied in front of the building of the Japanese Foreign Ministry on February 3. The protesters held up photos of Aung San Suu Kyi or signs with messages, such as “the Japanese government, please help us” and “put pressure on the military commander.” 

On April 22, 60 Myanmar activists gathered in front of the Nippon Foundation, and requested Sasakawa Yohei, the chairman of the Nippon Foundation and honorary chairman of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, who has made humanitarian contributions to medical assistance, peacebuilding operations, as well as election monitoring of Myanmar, to take action. Sasakawa is an influential figure who headed a Japanese election observation team as a special envoy of the Japanese government for national reconciliation in Myanmar in 2020. In observing the national election in Myanmar, Sasakwa mentioned that “this election was carried out in an extraordinarily fair manner, and the Myanmar military has accepted its results.” The Myanmar military in carrying out its February coup rejected the results of the election, alleging massive fraud on the part of the NLD.

Since Japan has economic links, defense connections, and unique diplomatic ties with Myanmar’s military leaders, the Japanese government is expected to make more proactive contributions to preventing the recurrence of bloodshed in the county in cooperation with the international community. Given its political and economic influence over the Myanmar military, it is possible for the Japanese government to consider and discuss the necessity and effectiveness of non-military R2P options. In sum, the Suga Yoshihide administration should actively contribute to peace with justice and a re-democratization process in Myanmar based on the policy of proactive contribution to peace as well as the free and open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) vision that values the rule of law, democracy, human rights, and freedom.