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Japan’s traditional approach to diplomacy – characterised by “quiet dialogue” – is becoming a threat to Burma’s fragile reform process. In recent weeks, the Japanese government has demonstrated an alarming lack of transparency regarding both its role in Burma’s peace process and land grabbing problems at Thilawa, Japan’s flagship development project near Rangoon. Eleven News also reported on Tuesday that a Burmese parliament member demanded greater transparency about how Japanese financial aid is distributed to Burma’s health sector.
Perhaps of greatest concern is Japan’s abysmal response to land grabbing problems at Thilawa. When landgrabbing reports first surfaced in January 2013, a Japanese company developing Thilawa responded to media inquiries by saying that land issues were the sole responsibility of Burma’s government. The following month, a spokesman for Japan’s embassy in Burma took the same position, saying that Thilawa land issues were “very complicated” and that Burma’s government was solely responsible for land grabbing issues.
This kind of detached and dismissive response from Japan was nothing less than a public relations disaster. It also set off alarm bells among members of the international community who were hoping that Japan would play a responsible role in Burma. It wasn’t until this October – over 10 months after the initial land grabbing report – that Japan’s government finally decided to take some responsibility for land grabbing by holding a meeting with Thilawa landowners. Not surprisingly, The Irrawaddy reported that the meeting was off-limits to the media and held behind closed doors.
Japan’s secretive approach to such an important issue is an ominous sign that Japan is stubbornly clinging to its “quiet dialogue” approach to diplomacy, whereby Japanese officials “gently encourage” foreigners to capitulate in stuffy private meetings that are tightly controlled and choreographed by Japan. Japanese officials just don’t seem comfortable doing business any other way. But being uncomfortable isn’t an excuse. There’s a good reason why transparency has become a rallying cry for Burma’s opposition, and Japan will need to adapt. A lack of transparency breeds corruption, and corruption stifles development. So if Japan really wants to foster sustainable development in Burma it simply has to change its ways.“Japan is starting to destroy an amazing opportunity that practically fell into its lap”
The Irrawaddy also reported that JICA – Japan’s overseas development arm – which it described as “notoriously tight-lipped” refused to answer inquiries about the land grabbing meeting. But Thilawa landowners were free to speak to the media, so it doesn’t make sense for JICA to decline interview requests. It’s not only a bad policy, but it harms Japan’s interests in Burma.
Burma’s decision to offset China by “opening up” in 2011 gave Japan a golden opportunity to reassert its influence in the country and greater Southeast Asia. Yet unfortunately, Japan’s lack of transparency is leading people to believe that Japan is no different than China, which has been widely criticised for making secretive deals with Burmese military generals to plunder Burma’s resources.
In other words, Japan is starting to destroy an amazing opportunity that practically fell into its lap when Burma’s military decided to give Japan a prominent role in developing the “new and improved” Burma. One reason why Japan has been so favoured lately is because it’s viewed as a “friendly” alternative to China. But if people start to equate Japan’s tactics with those of China, the whole game changes and Burma will be less willing to grant Japan special privileges.
Japan also made a huge mistake by asking Yohei Sasakawa to serve as Japan’s official peace ambassador in Burma. Sasakawa is a member of Japan’s far-right historical revisionist movement which still somehow thinks Japan was the victim rather than the aggressor of World War II. Sasakawa also cultivated personal ties with Burma’s former military dictatorship, and not surprisingly Sasakawa has yet to disavow his father’s controversial support for fascism.
In his blog, Sasakawa even sings high praises for former junta leader Than Shwe, an outrageous position which immediately puts him at odds with millions of Burmese citizens. As a personal friend and apologist of Than Shwe, it’s clear that Sasakawa should have been disqualified from the peace process from the beginning.
All this might explain why Sasakawa and his Nippon Foundation (which funds Sasakawa’s peacemaking efforts and was established with proceeds from his father’s gambling enterprise) are so media shy. Yet considering the important role they are playing in Burma’s peace process it’s imperative for Sasakawa and his organisation to be more transparent. Burmese people have a right to be informed about what’s happening in their country, and sooner or later savvy media professionals will find out anyway, so what’s the point of trying to hide?
Moreover, transparency is especially important in Japan’s case because there is evidence that Japan has been attempting to unduly influence Burma’s peace process (despite assurances from Japan’s Foreign Ministry to this author that Sasakawa is merely a neutral third-party mediator).
In March 2013, the Nippon Foundation threatened to cut off humanitarian aid to the Shan State Army-South (SSA-S) if it didn’t join the United Nationalities Federal Council, an alliance of armed ethnic groups supported by the Nippon Foundation as part of its peace efforts. The Nippon Foundation still hasn’t provided the world with a satisfactory explanation about why it put this pressure on the SSA-S, and the incident stands out as a prime example of how Japan is damaging Burma.
In addition, critics say the Nippon Foundation’s disbursement of humanitarian aid to ethnic groups hasn’t been conducted in a transparent way, particularly because it refuses to support community-based organisations. Instead, the aid is transferred directly to leaders of armed ethnic groups, who the Nippon Foundation apparently trusts.
The Nippon Foundation declined to answer questions about the SSA-S episode, saying instead that “we would like to keep it fair for all journalists, so we will release any information we have at the same time at a later date.” In other words, the Nippon Foundation wants to ensure that it controls the message by releasing a carefully-worded statement similar to the PR spin it released after The Irrawaddy criticised Sasakawa for his personal ties with Burma’s former military junta.
The problem, however, is that in Burma’s highly-charged media environment the Nippon Foundation can no longer hide from its past, carefully control its message, or avoid direct questioning from the media. Not being fluent in Burmese or English isn’t a sufficient excuse. If that’s the case, hire an interpreter. The longer Japan avoids the spotlight the more Burmese people will start to realise that Japan is not very different than China, and that both countries are making secretive deals to further their interests in Burma. Transparency is a crucial component of sustainable development, and Japan simply cannot afford to continue with business as usual.
Without a doubt, Burma’s reforms have presented Japan with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but the sad truth is that Japan’s development strategy is flawed. It’s a pity because Japan has the potential to make a truly positive contribution to Burma. There are plenty of liberal-minded people in Japan who have Burma expertise and know the value of transparency. The Japanese government should give them a greater voice rather than relying on far-right revisionists whose commitment to human rights, democracy, and transparency is questionable at best.
By stubbornly sticking to “quiet diplomacy” and relying on representatives from its conservative establishment, Japan is not only undermining its own interests in the country, but also wasting a great opportunity to play a constructive role in Burma’s development.
Jacob Robinson is a freelance writer who focuses on business and politics in Asia.