Human rights groups are calling on the government of Japan to cease training of Myanmar military officers, after it emerged that a Japanese-trained air force commander was based at an airbase implicated in bombing raids on civilian militia forces opposed to the country’s military junta.
The advocacy groups Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Justice for Myanmar said in statements on Monday that Lt. Col. Hlwan Moe of the Myanmar Air Force has taken part in aerial raids in Magwe Region, a center of anti-junta resistance.
According to HRW, Hlwan Moe received training at Japan’s Air Command and Staff College from August 2016 to March 2017, citing Japanese government documents. Hlwan Moe’s name, rank, position, and military ID appeared on a list of Myanmar air force personnel reportedly involved in airstrikes since 2021 that was leaked to the local media and published in January.
Magwe, in central Myanmar, has emerged as a stronghold of the anti-junta resistance that has sprouted up across the country in the 16 months since the coup. Fighting has displaced more than 50,000 civilians, and the junta’s security forces have carried out brutal reprisal attacks that have involved summary executions, arson, and other abuses. This also includes airstrikes on regions controlled by anti-regime forces.
The discovery of Hlwan Moe’s name on the list, which has also been confirmed by other sources that claim he has been deployed to an airbase in Magwe, has prompted fresh scrutiny of Japan’s support for Myanmar’s armed forces, known also as the Tatmadaw.
The training program dates back to 2015, the hopeful high-point of Myanmar’s political and economic opening, when a number of foreign governments began engaging with the military after years of restricted contact.
Under the program, cadets from Myanmar are hosted at Japan’s National Defense Academy, where they receive both academic and military training, the latter of which includes combat and firearms training. According to Japan’s Ministry of Defense, it accepts military personnel from 36 countries under its Self-Defense Forces Law, which permits training and educating foreign nationals in Defense Ministry facilities with the defense minister’s approval.
This training program come under fire previously, but the fact that it has continued since the coup, a moment that prompted many nations fundamentally to reassess their engagement with Myanmar, has prompted anger from rights activists. According to HRW, in 2021, following the coup, Japan accepted two cadets and two officers to take part in the training program. This was followed by a further two cadets and two officers this year.
Japan wasn’t the only nation to establish such relationships to the Myanmar security forces during the country’s period of apparent growing openness in the mid-2010s. In 2016,the European Union also set up a controversial program known as MYPOL, under which it trained and equipped the country’s police force with the aim of turning it into “a modern police agency that adheres to international standards, respects human rights, and maintains gender awareness.” Within days of the military coup, which exposed the almost comically large gap between aspiration and reality, the EU suspended the program and it is hard to see it resuming in any form.
Teppei Kasai, HRW’s Asia program officer, said in the organization’s statement that Myanmar’s long history of war crimes should exposed the Japanese government to allegations of complicity in war crimes and other atrocities. “The Japanese government should give up its absurd, wishful thinking that its training program can change the Myanmar military’s abusive culture,” Kasai said.
Tokyo’s apparent logic is that this training allows it to preserve a toehold of influence within the Tatmadaw, fearful that enacting sanctions, along with other Western nations, will open up a vacuum of influence that will simply be filled by China. This also explains the relatively moderate position that Japan has taken since the coup, in comparison to the United States, EU, United Kingdom, and Canada.