As the inimitable Shwedagon Pagoda blazed in the sun in all its glory, I blithely set about my morning stroll in Myanmar’s budding former capital, Yangon, scarcely expecting the impending cataclysm. It was the fateful early morning of February 1, when the country’s decade-long democratization progress screeched to a sudden halt. The sight of military vehicles inundating Yangon’s bustling morning traffic aroused in me an eerie sense of déjà vu vividly colored by the memories of Myanmar’s past crucibles.
Shortly thereafter, I found myself to be one of the few foreigners in constant contact with Myanmar’s current de facto leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, as international censure mounted on his consequential action. My enduring engagement with him underscores Japan’s near century-long special relationship with Myanmar, an oft-forgotten geopolitical factor crucial to resolving the present crisis as China’s clout increasingly overshadows the future of a free and open Indo-Pacific.
The Myanmar so territorially defined on today’s map is an impossible geopolitical proposition perennially constrained by its inhospitable terrain and internal contradictions. The horseshoe-shaped Irrawaddy river basin is home to the thriving agricultural base led by the Bamar ethnic majority and a gateway to the burgeoning Indo-Pacific. Meanwhile, while the highlands surrounding the basin insulate the Burmese core from continental powers, such as China and India, they harbor 10 armed insurgent groups fighting Myanmar’s federal government accommodating 135 ethnicities. The upshot is Myanmar’s inescapable geopolitical fate, swinging the pendulum of the country’s history to constantly oscillate between centralization and decentralization of power.
Foreign influence has invariably crept into Myanmar and exacerbated its inherent lack of internal cohesion throughout its history. Ensconced uneasily at the crossroads of Eurasia and the Indo-Pacific, Myanmar has fallen victim to great power machinations by both continental and maritime powers, but only the maritime British Empire succeeded in occupying its entire territory thanks to the openness of the Irrawaddy Delta. In particular, the British imperialist policy of divide and rule has sown seeds of lingering internal divisions that continue to overshadow Myanmar’s future. Therefore, the century-long humiliation experienced particularly under the British rule cultivated a vehement, yet traumatic sense of nationalism and independence in Myanmar’s national psyche.
Myanmar’s historical solution has been a military-led regime led by the country’s armed forces, the Tatmadaw, preoccupied with centralization of power and prevention of foreign meddling. Indeed, it is a living incarnation of political power grown out of the barrel of a gun. Therefore, the perennial Western pressure for a democratic Myanmar is seen as tantamount to a veritable threat to the regime’s security, on a par with active foreign military support to ethnic insurgencies. While such a paranoid approach to governance is not uncommon among the world’s autocratic states, the Tatmadaw-led regime is a rare exception in its paradoxical aspirations to Myanmar’s democratic future.
Such a paradox originates in the Japan-Myanmar special relationship forged during the tribulation of World War II. At the height of the bloody Burma campaign, Colonel Keiji Suzuki of the Imperial Japanese Army supported the legendary Thirty Comrades, the founders of modern Myanmar, including General Aung San, the father of the renowned Burmese democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi. Suzuki founded and led the Burmese Independence Army along with the Thirty Comrades against the British, culminating in the birth of a quasi-independent, civilian-led regime, the State of Burma in 1943. Although engineered largely as Tokyo’s own Lawrence of Arabia-like expedient, Burma’s short-lived independence from the century-long British colonialism and its exposure to civilian governance did fuel the country’s post-colonial zeal for a modern democratic state. Indeed, while General Aung San ironically led a revolt against the waning Japanese army during the final days of World War II, the postwar Republic of the Union of Myanmar became the first Asian country to mend ties with the former regional overlord even as it struggled to manage its newfound democratic experiment at home.
Geostrategic pragmatism drove the post-war Myanmar-Japan special relationship, revolving around historical personal ties. Indeed, an independent Myanmar has been in Japan’s enduring regional interests as its indispensable anchor in the Indo-Pacific. Whereas its loss spelled doom for Imperial Japan’s bungling military advances by early 1945, the immediate post-war resumption of the special relationship put the defeated empire squarely back in the Indo-Pacific as the region’s leading economic patron. Even after the emergence of General Ne Win’s military regime in 1962, Tokyo leveraged the new Burmese leader’s pre-war affiliation with Imperial Japan to cultivate strategic relations with the increasingly isolated socialist country by pouring in economic largesse. The new Japan-Myanmar special relationship weathered the subsequent vicissitudes of Myanmar’s domestic transformations, ranging from democracy movements to military coups. Japan has thus consistently maintained its exclusive channel to the Southeast Asian country’s leadership, including my personal ties to Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.
By contrast, the West has been indefatigably pursuing to its own detriment the questionable strategy of regime change, supposedly for Myanmar’s democratic future. Such an approach reflects at best irresponsible disregard for Myanmar’s history and at worst incorrigible strategic folly. In fact, Myanmar’s democratization efforts for the last decade have inadvertently intensified the country’s ethnic tensions and even allowed China to dramatically expand its clout, ironically thanks to its budding relationship with Aung San Suu Kyi. Indeed, China paved the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) in earnest on Aung San Suu Kyi’s watch, leading Beijing to accelerate its thrust into the Indo-Pacific to its immediate rear.
Ironically, the Tatmadaw’s hostile takeover of Naypyidaw on February 1 has put the future of China’s geoeconomic projects in limbo, and its abiding skepticism toward Beijing’s intentions has driven Myanmar’s military government to increasingly court Russia as its newfound patron amidst the growing Western pressure. While Myanmar’s growing courtship with Russia would surreptitiously check China’s regional ambitions, the emerging geopolitical landscape eerily resembles that of Syria during the 2011 Arab Spring, where the West’s relentless push for democratization failed to prevent the ongoing civil war and Russia’s military intervention in 2015. The strategy of regime change has an abysmal track record around the globe, posing fundamental questions surrounding the West’s current approach to the crisis in Myanmar.
Against this backdrop, Japan’s cordial relationship with Myanmar’s government under the ongoing national emergency is not at all antithetical to the Western desire for the country’s democratic future. Rather, they complement each other, and Japan’s patient, economic-centric approach to Myanmar’s democratization merits sober reconsideration in light of the current geopolitical climate surrounding the beleaguered Southeast Asian country. Japan remains committed to Myanmar’s economic development as the foundation for the country’s ultimate transformation into a stable democracy. In my recent dialogue with Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, he personally reaffirmed his commitment to restoring a civilian government in the future. Indeed, his controversial action on February 1 reflected the provisions of the 2008 constitution, leading to his declaration of the current state of national emergency. In other words, his vision for Myanmar’s future is fully in line with Japan’s traditional approach to the country consisting of patient engagement with the Tatmadaw and continuous economic development conducive to eventual democratization.
Japan therefore yet again finds itself at the crossroads of Myanmar’s tumultuous history and faces a historic choice in its engagement with the Indo-Pacific’s pivot country. As the secretary general of the Japan-Myanmar Association who has directed the Myanmar-Japan special relationship over the years, I argue 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. Indeed, as Naypyidaw increasingly pivots to Russia and other autocratic powers for strategic positioning, Japan remains the only democratic country preserving its historical ties to Myanmar’s military government. Leveraging its decades-long economic cooperation, Japan can now directly work with the Tatmadaw to reverse China’s geoeconomic influence by supporting strategic infrastructure projects, such as construction of ports, in service of Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy. Such a dispassionate, pragmatic response to the current crisis in Myanmar would be a welcome addition to the burgeoning regional cooperation toward a free and open Indo-Pacific increasingly challenged by China’s geopolitical ambitions.
In his 1919 seminal work, “Democratic Ideals and Reality: A Study in the Politics of Reconstruction,” Sir Hanford Mackinder lamented the prevailing utopian delirium following World War I and proposed geostrategic prudence in leading the post-war reconstruction of war-torn Europe. Nowhere is Mackinder’s perennial wisdom more relevant than in today’s Myanmar. The enduring Japan-Myanmar special relationship forged during World War II is a vivid testament to the Tatmadaw’s long-standing admiration for Japan and democracy as Myanmar’s ultimate form of governance. Finding a solution to Myanmar’s present crisis begins with deference to the country’s history and economic development of a political environment conducive to democratization rather than external imposition of foreign values. Lest the international community repeat the folly of the interwar period a century ago, Japan must demonstrate exemplary leadership in Myanmar’s current crisis by staying the course in further boosting its special relationship with the Tatmadaw for greater economic cooperation toward peace and ultimately democratization. As Washington and Tokyo renew their commitment to a democratic Myanmar, Japan must realize its historic mission of guiding Myanmar’s military government in service of a free and open Indo-Pacific and remain unafraid even if its actions diverge from those of the U.S. and other democratic allies.