THE NORTH WIND AND
By Donald M. Seekins
JAPANESE parents often tell their children Aesop's fable about the North Wind and the Sun, in which they have a contest to see who can make a traveler take off his coat. The North Wind blows cold gusts on the traveler, but the harder he blows the more tightly the unfortunate man clutches the coat around his body. The Sun then pours down his warm rays, and in that way easily succeeds in getting the man to doff his garment.
moral of the fable is that it is easier to get people to do what you want them
to do through warmth and encouragement than through harshness. As a lesson in
human relations, the story teaches tolerance, patience, and acceptance rather
than the "cold" measurement of human behavior against the standards
of universal ethical principles. These sentiments resonate strongly with the
cultural-ideological values of contemporary
was not surprising, then, when Japanese diplomats and journalists during the
mid-1990s drew upon the imagery of the North Wind and the Sun to illustrate
their government's approach to the ongoing political crisis in
interests have taken priority in
Neither inside nor outside the government, however, has there been
unanimity regarding the official stance on
The business constituency,
including government agencies (especially the Ministry of International Trade
and Industry), business associations (such as Keidanren ["Federation of
Economic Organizations"], the most important business association in
Japan), individual corporations, and a coterie of powerful conservative
politicians, has far more influence in Japan than the human rights
constituency. Yet Japanese business has not
yet gotten what it wants—the large-scale resumption of loan projects,
including new projects—in
(1) although Japanese
ASEAN states, where the business environment is much less risky. Vietnam, moreover, has competed successfully with Burma for Japanese capital during the early and mid-1990s;
(2) the international
stature of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi makes it impossible for
(3) SLORC has not devised concrete measures to deal with the problem of its unpaid yen-denominated debt.
Nevertheless, Tokyo's Burma policy does benefit the business constituency in that it constitutes a low-risk strategy that ensures Japan a significant economic presence inside the country, thus allowing business to be poised for full engagement as soon as political conditions change for the better.
Between these two constituencies, and especially inside the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, stands the Sun Diplomacy constituency, which in 1989 attempted to reach beyond economic interests by normalizing relations with Burma and resuming committed ODA funds in order to buy time within which SLORC and its democratic opponents could work out their differences.
In explaining Japan's relations with Burma, all of these important factors must be kept in mind. I will therefore begin my analysis by recounting in detail the process of normalization of relations in 1989 and the subsequently important roles played by Japanese business interests on the one hand and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on the other. I will then conclude by summing up the following questions:
(1) To what extent do Burma-Japan relations since 1988 represent a departure from the "economics first" approach that has dominated Japan's foreign relations since the end of the Pacific War?
(2) Has "sun diplomacy" been successful? And what alternative policy might have been, or in future could be, more effective in modifying SLORC's behavior?
The February 1989 Normalization of Relations
eighty-eight, the "year of rage," caught most foreign observers by
surprise. Much of the military's violence against largely unarmed demonstrators
in August and September of that year took place in the central districts of
Rangoon, where modest numbers of foreign diplomats were posted. Among those on
the scene who disapproved of the behavior of the Tatmadaw (
This response to the military takeover in Burma was in line with similar actions by other industrialized democracies (Lintner 1989a:195), and many foreign observers were impressed with Japan's apparent decisiveness. However, U.S. State Department sources have told this writer that, Ambassador Ohtaka's influence notwithstanding, Tokyo halted its aid flows reluctantly only after considerable pressure from Washington (personal communication, Okinawa, Japan, September 17, 1992). If this is true, Tokyo's subsequent and (for many observers, at least) unexpected decision on 17 February 1989 to restore normal relations with SLORC is not surprising.
contrast to most governments,
According to a Foreign Ministry spokesman in Tokyo, the February 1989 move to normalize relations was predicated on two legal considerations: 1) SLORC enjoyed effective control over most of the country (actually a questionable premise, given that minority insurgencies in border areas remained strong), and 2) it had broken no international laws or treaties. The same spokesman further claimed that official recognition of SLORC would enable Japan to open a channel of communication through which it could encourage the junta to democratize the government and liberalize the economy (personal communication, Tokyo, February 6, 1991).
Reopening the ODA Pipeline
In the wake of normalization, the Japanese government resumed disbursement of ODA for six grant projects, worth Yen9.1 billion, and nineteen loan projects, worth Yen125.0 billion (Saitoo 1992: 23). Between 1989 and 1994, it approved no new aid projects apart from debt-relief grants and small-scale humanitarian aid (see Table One, Japanese Aid Projects in Burma, 1989-1994). But Japan had `broken ranks with the other industrialized democracies which had frozen virtually all ODA disbursements. Germany, for example, had been, after Japan, Burma's second-largest donor of ODA through the 1970s and 1980s. Bonn shut down all projects except for three small technical cooperation programs completed in 1993 (correspondence from the Institut fur Asienkunde, Germany, April 28, 1994).
Normalization evoked international criticism. According to one Western diplomat, it was "shocking and capricious," and "just proves you cannot trust Japan to behave responsibly" (Richburg, 1989: A20). Aung San Suu Kyi, at the time a relatively unknown figure outsider her own country, commented that "I think it would have been so much better if people could put human rights issues above economic issues, especially in a country like Burma where the human rights issue is so pressing" (Foreign Broadcast Information Service, 1989: 39-40).
The Smoking Gun
The Japanese government's motives were placed under considerable scrutiny after it was discovered that the Japan-Burma Association (Nihon-Biruma Kyookai, now known as the Nihon-Myanmaa Kyookai or Japan-Myanmar Association to reflect the official change of the country's name in 1989) had submitted a petition to the prime minister on January 25, 1989 requesting normalization and a resumption of aid flows. The petition emphasized that Japanese companies were liable to sustain huge losses on procurement of goods and services if ODA remained frozen. Drawing on the rhetoric of Burma's "historic friendship" with Japan, the petition also pointed out that non-recognition of SLORC would make it impossible for Burma to send an official representative to the funeral of the Shoowa Emperor, Hirohito, scheduled for February 24, 1989 (Nihon-Biruma Kyookai, 1989).
According to Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs sources, the Japan-Burma Association's petition had no part in the government's decision to recognize SLORC and the close timing between the two was coincidental (Tokyo, February 6, 1991). For critics of Japan's foreign policy, however, the petition was a "smoking gun" which illustrated the top priority Tokyo places on economic interests. The Association's corporate members was a business constituency honor roll, including many of Japan's largest trading and manufacturing companies, such as Mitsubishi Shooji, Mitsui Bussan, Nisshoo Iwai, Mitsubishi Petroleum, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Kashima Construction Company (See Table Two, Membership of the Japan-Myanmar Association in 1995). A Japanese Burma specialist, Professor Saitoo Teruko, commented in a 1992 article that the petition:
...which was translated into Burmese and circulated abroad, incurred
the ire of Burmese people struggling for the realization of democracy in
their homeland. An appeal to the Japanese government dated March 1, 1989,
from the Association of Burmese in
opposing the Japanese stance. At a time when the military junta was
suppressing human rights under martial law conditions, withholding, not
granting, recognition and aid would help and encourage the Burmese
people, the group said...Finally, the group claimed, the aid was not for
the Burmese people but was to protect the interests of Japanese
companies involved (Saito, 1992: 22, 23).
Normalization was a product of "quiet dialogue." According to a report in the Far Eastern Economic Review, an "unofficial mission" from Tokyo, including an representative from the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI, the agency most closely tied to business interests), visited Rangoon in early February 1989 and held talks with Ohn Gyaw, a high-ranking official in Burma's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Holloway, 1989: 21). So low-profile was the delegation that its activities were apparently unknown to the Japanese embassy in Rangoon. Nevertheless, it gained Ohn Gyaw's assurance that SLORC would publish a draft multiparty election law by early March. In fact, the day before normalization was announced, SLORC released to the public a schedule for holding these elections (Holloway 1989:21). Thus, as the "Sun" showered its rays on Burma, it appeared that the country's political and humanitarian crises might be satisfactorily resolved while still allowing Japan an effective economic presence.
Normalization as a Maximin Strategy
Arguably, there were two alternatives to normalization available to the Japanese government at the beginning of 1989, either:
(1) following the western line by indefinitely freezing all aid projects while
still recognizing SLORC on the government-to-government level; or,
(2) recognizing SLORC, resuming all existing aid projects, and allowing
for the approval of new projects.
The first alternative was clearly improbable given the traditional strength of the business constituency. Aside from causing large losses to important Japanese companies (as outlined in the Japan-Burma Association's petition), stopping all aid projects would have set a worrying precedent for policy toward recipient countries in Asia -- especially China and Indonesia -- whose markets were bigger than Burma's. Given SLORC's xenophobia and the readily available sources of economic support from neighboring countries, moreover, it is questionable whether a firmer policy toward the junta would have been more successful than "Sun diplomacy."
second, "business as usual," alternative was almost equally
unattractive for two other reasons. First, such a policy would have aroused
strong criticism from
Normalization represented a compromise between these two policies, each
of which would have had high costs for powerful interests within
1: Normalization but no ODA funds - significant loss of influence inside
2: "Business as Usual" - misuse of funds on inappropriate ODA projects;
a new, disruptive issue in
3: Normalization and flow of committed ODA - partial but not complete
loss of influence inside
The first policy alternative was unacceptable because the commercial markets and political influence put at risk -- markets and influence patiently built up over the thirty-four years since the signing of a Burma-Japan peace treaty and war reparations agreement in 1954 -- were much too valuable to jeopardize. The second alternative was also unacceptable, because the Ministry of Finance felt it could not justify the high cost of squandered aid funds, and Japan's leaders did not want to increase political tensions with the West simply in order to gain the junta's good will. By rejecting both of these alternatives and adopting instead the plan for normalizing relations and reopening the pipeline of committed aid, Japan would retain considerable residual influence in Burma while SLORC consolidated its hold on power and embarked on a promising policy of economic liberalization. At worst, no futher funds would be committed, and criticism from the West could be kept within manageable proportions.
From 1979 until the political turmoil and subsequent stoppage of ODA in 1988, Burma was consistently one of Japan's "top ten" aid recipients. For the 1980-1988 period, for instance, Japanese loans and grants constituted 64.9 percent of all OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) bilateral disbursements, with totals averaging US$157.8 million annually. Despite the fact that major new aid projects were not initiated after normalization, Japan retained its status as Burma's largest aid donor. During 1989-1993, it contributed on average US$71.6 million of aid per annum, a figure accounting for 81.8 percent of all DAC disbursements to Burma. In 1991, Burma was again among the "top ten" recipients of Japanese aid (ranked tenth) despite the freeze on new projects (see Table 3, Japan's Bilateral Official Development Assistance to Burma, 1979-1993).
Although new yen loan funds were not allocated after 1988 (or, more accurately, after 1986), the Japanese government extended debt-relief grants amounting to Yen30.7 billion (approximately US$300.0 million at US$1.00=yen100) during 1990-1994, with additional grants being given after that time. Following United Nations guidelines concerning Least Developed Countries, debt from Japan serviced by SLORC was converted by the Japanese government into grants for use by the regime (Amnesty International-Japan Branch 1995: 77, 78).
As the figures above and in Tables 1 and 3 suggest, the amount of post-normalization grants and prior-existing ODA was considerable and contributed significantly to the SLORC-era economy. This is suggested as well by Burmese government figures, which show that Japan remained the largest single country source of imports in the post-1988 period, accounting for 40.3 percent of imports in FY1987-88, 16.3 percent in FY1990-1991, and 28.6 percent in FY1992-1993 (Economist Intelligence Unit 1995:94). Japan's continued importance as a source of imports seems to reflect in large measure the procurement of goods in Japan by contractors seeking materials for on-going aid projects such as the Ngawun Bridge, located near Rangoon and completed in June 1991.
Originally funded by a ¥1.5 billion grant in 1986, the bridge was described in a 1992 article in the Japan Times as a "major success in technology transfer," since Burmese rather than Japanese engineers played the major role in its construction. A comment made by one of these engineers, however, suggests that the project was also very dependent upon material imports: "(b)ecause there are many rivers in our country, we have to construct many more bridges. If we can get construction material from Japan, we are confident that we can build longer bridges" (Japan Times 1992, my italics). A second pre-existing project for which funds were released was the Nawin Dam, located near the city of Prome (Pyay) in central Burma and originally funded by ¥8.0 billion in Japanese loans. In June 1992 work on the dam resumed, and construction was eventually completed in 1995 (Japan Times 1995a).
the 1989-1994 period, private Japanese companies operating in Burma could be
divided roughly into two categories: 1) small firms that operated outside the
Japanese business mainstream and dared to enter a highly risky business
environment, and 2) major general trading companies (soogoo shoosha) that existed at the heart of
the business establishment but had adapted themselves to high-risk, low-profit
markets such as that of Burma. An example of the former is Daichi,
a signboard manufacturer that joined with SLORC in the early 1990s to establish
a joint venture, the Myanmar-Concord Development Organization (MCDO), to build,
in the words of the Bangkok Post,
"an entire new city" in the Rangoon area, including a new airport,
"almost 4,000 man-made lakes," resorts, a highway system, and high
technology telecommunications systems. Total capital investment over 15 years
was estimated at US$15.0 billion, and the new city was planned to have a
population of up to four million people by 2001 (Bangkok Post 1990). MCDO established an office in the plush Akasaka district of central Tokyo, but by 1992 its
ambitious plans had evaporated and its Akasaka office
was closed. Another small company, MCG (Mimatsu
Construction Group), played a central role in the 1989-90 sale
to Japanese buyers of land belonging to the Burmese Embassy in
The most important role in Burma-Japan economic relations, however, has traditionally been played by the soogoo shoosha, such as the Marubeni trading firm, with its major share in procurement contracts for the yen 27.0 billion Mingaladon Airport modernization project. These companies regularly act as intermediaries for generally risk-averse Japanese manufacturing firms and are ideally positioned to obtain procurement contracts linked to Japanese ODA. According to one observer, the soogoo shoosha, which enjoy excellent access to local powerholders and sources of information, act as "an unofficial proxy for the Japanese government, which for political reasons cannot cooperate too closely with the ruling junta" (Sender 1996:48). Adopting a "watch and wait" attitude on future ODA projects after 1988, by the mid-1990s the soogoo shoosha were lobbying energetically for new projects funded by yen loans. Many of these companies were corporate trustees of the Japan-Myanmar Association (see Table 2).
In terms of total amounts of private investment, figures for the SLORC era, though not entirely reliable, indicate that Japanese companies have invested less heavily in Burma than have companies of other nations, including those in the West. Statistics for the period from 1988 to mid-1995 in fact reveal that Japan's total private investment of US$107.0 million ranked a relatively modest seventh among foreign investors and below the levels of Britain, France, and the United States. French and American oil companies, in particular, invested heavily in Burma (Economist Intelligence Unit 1995:41).
Keidanren, the Federation of Economic Organizations, stepped up the pressure for full
economic engagement when it sent a special mission of some fifty business
After the Keidanren mission, a number of high profile Japanese companies to send their own investigative groups to Burma, or to make commitments to investing in the country. The first of these were securities and banking firms. In late 1994, for instance, Daiwa Securities, one of Japan's "big four" securities trading houses, signed a memorandum of understanding with SLORC to assist in the establishment of a Rangoon stock exchange (Far Eastern Economic Review 1994a:65), while in March 1995 the Bank of Tokyo (now Tokyo-Mitsubishi Bank, Japan's largest) became the first Japanese bank to reopen its office in Rangoon (it had closed its office there in 1984). Seven months later, Fuji Bank, too, reestablished its office in Rangoon.
Following this lead, companies of other kinds became interested in pursuing business opportunities in Burma. In February 1996, Mitsui Bussan (Mitsui Trading Company) made an agreement with Burma's Ministry of Construction to build a 9,600 square meter industrial park north of Rangoon (Sender 1996:48), while in April the soogoo shoosha Mitsui Bussan joined with the American and French oil companies Unocal and Total to sign a memorandum of understanding with SLORC to exploit the Yadana natural gas field in the Andaman Sea. This memorandum covered three projects valued collectively at US$700.0 million: construction of a 250 kilometer pipeline to southern Burma; connection of the pipeline with an electric power plant; and construction of a urea fertilizer production facility (Asahi Shimbun 1996; Economist Intelligence Unit 1996:19).
A Departure from 'Economics First'?
from the alliance with the
This is a difficult problem. I may be
misinformed, but because aid is a part of diplomatic relations between
countries, there is no other alternative but to work with the existing
political regime. For example, there was criticism that aid to the Philippines
supported the Marcos dictatorship. But there was a flood in
However, the 1989-1996 period did see a partial disengagement from "economics first" in Burma. This was done through the implicit promise to resume ODA on the generous levels of the 1980s should SLORC begin political reform or at least take a softer line vis-a-vis the democratic opposition. Moreover, the government of Prime Minister Kaifu Toshiki announced in 1991 guidelines that included democratization and basic human rights as factors to be taken into consideration in formulating aid policy toward specific countries (Japan Times 1991). These guidelines, formally adopted the following year as the "Fundamental Principles of ODA" (Seifu kaihatsu enjo Taikoo), make the following four stipulations with respect to the allocation of ODA:
(1) that environmental issues as well as economic issues in the recipient country be considered;
(2) that ODA not be used for military purposes or for the promotion of international conflicts;
(3) that full consideration be paid to the recipient country's military spending, procurement of weapons of mass destruction, development/production of missiles, and export/import of weapons; and
(4) that full consideration be paid as well to the possibility of promoting a democratic government, a market economy, and the observance of basic human rights in the recipient country (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan 1995: vol. 1, 46-51).
Skeptics regarded the Fundamental Principles, especially the fourth one dealing with democratization and human rights, as little more than window-dressing designed to placate Japan's Western allies. For the mid-1990s, at least, this seems to be true, for two of Japan's largest recipients of ODA during those years--the People's Republic of China and Indonesia--had notoriously repressive governments and human rights problems. Japan had in fact been the first country to resume large-scale aid to China after the June 1989 Tian'anmen Massacre, and the East Timor crisis, including a November 1991 incident in which as many as 180 unarmed demonstrators were killed by the Indonesian army outside a Timorese Catholic church, had minimal impact on the flow of ODA funds between Tokyo and Jakarta.
One problem with the Fundamental Principles is that there are no clearly defined guidelines for how the are to be applied. At the Amnesty International symposium mentioned earlier, an official of Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs hinted at the equivocal nature of the Principles as follows:
Although the Fundamental Principles of ODA have four points, these are not necessarily a 'negative checklist'. Should [a recipient country] not meet one criterion, this doesn't mean that ODA will be stopped. Rather, a decision is made comprehensively, taking all factors into consideration. (Amnesty International - Japan Branch 1995:69)
Japanese perceptions of the junta and its fulfillment of requirements under the
Four Fundamental Principles seemed to many domestic
and foreign critics to be excessively optimistic, even easy-going. Government
spokesmen argued, for instance, that SLORC's economic liberalization policies
justified some form of continuing ODA
engagement, since this would encourage the regime to move further toward a free
market economy. Tokyo also saw fit to interpret the National Convention of
January 1993, which SLORC convened for the purpose of drafting a new
constitution, as a sincere gesture towards transfer to civilian rule, thus
justifying certain concessions. Whatever the reasoning involved, however, the
wisdom of Tokyo's leniency toward SLORC remains questionable given the regime's
high levels of military spending. In terms of proportion of total government
spending, Burma's defense budget is one of the largest in the world, and by the
mid-1990s the Burmese land army was the second largest in Southeast Asia, next
only to that of war-battered Vietnam. Such facts seem clearly contrary to the
spirit of the Four Principles of ODA funding and suggest that the business
constituency still retained major influence of the conduct of relations with
Aung San Suu Kyi as a Factor in Burma-Japan Relations
For most Japanese citizens who followed world affairs in the 1990s, Aung San Suu Kyi was a charismatic and attractive figure. Because she is Asian, they may have identified with her more easily than with other internationally prominent human rights advocates such as Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa or Rigoberta Menchu of Guatemala, who both share with Daw Suu Kyi the distinction of having won the Nobel Peace Prize. Aung San Suu Kyi's father, Aung San, had a close historical association with Japan. While Daw Suu Kyi was at Kyoto University's Center for Southeast Asian Studies during the mid-1980s she conducted research on her father's life.
After her house arrest, and especially after she received the Nobel Prize in October 1991, a number of books were written about Daw Suu Kyi in Japanese. Her collection of writings, Freedom from Fear, was translated into Japanese and published in 1991, and a translated collection of her speeches was published in 1996 (Aung San Suu Kyi 1991; Aung San Suu Kyi 1996). In 1994, she even made it into the world of manga (Japanese book-length comics) when one manga publisher came out with the story of her life, Aung San Suu Kyi: Tatakau kujaku [Aung San Suu Kyi: The fighting peacock] as part of its "Super Nobel Prize Stories" series (Akazu 1994). In the comic, she and her husband, Michael Aris, are portrayed as examples of the bishoonen (beautiful young people) types popular with Japanese readers (see Figure 1).
The news and broadcast media, including the state-run television network, NHK, gave Suu Kyi fairly extensive coverage. In a 1991 historical program on wartime Japanese assistance for the Burmese independence movement, for example, she was mentioned as Aung San's daughter, indicating that she is the inheritor of his patriotic legacy (Nippon Hoosoo Kyookai 1991). Commercial television stations, such as the Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS), also featured her activities in programs such as TBS's Sunday evening news analysis program, Joohoo Tokushuu [News special edition]. Japanese newspapers, and especially the more liberal dailies like the Asahi Shimbun and the Mainichi Shimbun, paid more attention to her than did their counterparts in the West (the New York Times, for example), which were preoccupied by developments in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. After Daw Suu Kyi's release from house arrest in July 1995, the Mainichi Shimbun published her weekly "Letter from Burma" in Japanese, with the English-language version appearing in the Mainichi Daily News. In 1996, the series won an award from the Japan Publishers and Editors Association (Mainichi Daily News 1996b).
On several occasions, members of both houses of Japan's parliament, the Diet, petitioned for Daw Suu Kyi's release from house arrest. In April 1994, the Japan Times reported that more than half the Diet membership, 403 out of 763 persons, signed such a petition, which was then addressed to the Secretary-General of the United Nations in coordination with similar petitions from other countries (Japan Times 1994). In addition, certain members of the Diet, including Eda Satsuki and Hatoyama Yukio, organized a "Parliamentary Coalition to Seek the Release of Aung San Suu Kyi," whose agenda included holding study sessions on the Burma crisis and coordinating activities with parliamentarians in other countries (Amnesty International-Japan Branch 1995:85, 86).
The Diet's influence over Japan's foreign policy was (and remains) very limited compared to that of the executive agencies of government and the Liberal Democratic Party (even after the LDP fragmented in summer 1993). But even senior LDP politicians and elite bureaucrats could ill afford to ignore Aung San Suu Kyi. In a meeting with SLORC chairman Saw Maung in August 1990, Watanabe Michio, a powerful Diet member and LDP faction leader, not to mention the first Japanese legislator to visit Burma after the SLORC takeover, urged both the transfer of power to civilians and the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. Similar requests were made when Daw Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October 1991. In addition, Japanese officials made their concerns known to other Asian leaders: in December 1991, Prime Minister Miyazawa Kiichi brought up Aung San Suu Kyi and the Burmese political crisis in his discussions with Malaysia's prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad; and the following month, Watanabe Michio, newly appointed Foreign Minister, broached the same issues with Chinese deputy prime minister Wu Xueqian in Beijing (Seekins 1992:36).
In Japan as elsewhere, Aung San Suu Kyi's emergence as a figure of international stature had two somewhat contradictory consequences. First, her determined opposition to SLORC made it possible to keep the Burmese crisis in the international limelight. Without a charismatic leader, the Burmese democracy movement would probably have slipped into obscurity. Aung San Suu Kyi's prominence before both domestic and international audiences meant that Japanese officials had to give her at least symbolic gestures of support even if they preferred to conduct business as usual.
However, as Aung San Suu Kyi herself became the central focus of "quiet dialogue," Tokyo's official concern for her personal welfare drew attention away from other, more deeply rooted problems such as the junta's systematic denial of human rights throughout the country, both in ethnic minority and Burman areas. In a sense, Aung San Suu Kyi's existence under house arrest simplified Japan's task of negotiating with SLORC. She became a bargaining chip in SLORC's efforts to secure a bigger slice of the Japanese ODA pie. Their decision to release her in July 1995 reflected confidence that she would soon be marginalized and forgotten by the international community.
The Suu Kyi-centered bilateral discourse was clearly not her own intention. "What," a correspondent for the
Far Eastern Economic Review asked
her in August 1995, "do you think about
(Suu Kyi): I think they should wait and see a bit and not rush into it. Aid
should get to people who need it most and it should be given in the right
way at the right time. If it is a reward for my release, I'm just one political
prisoner released, and there are others as well. The change in conditions
of just one person is not enough (Fairclough 1995: 26).
In the months leading up to Daw Suu Kyi's release from house arrest, the Sun diplomacy constituency's strategy -- using small incentives to remind SLORC that bigger rewards were contingent upon its good behavior -- seemed to be working. In February 1994, United States Congressman Bill Richardson was allowed to meet with her. More significantly, leaders from within the regime itself met with her on two separate occasions in September and October. To reward SLORC for these minor concessions, the Japanese government announced in late 1994 that it would approve US$10-20 million in new humanitarian aid (Far Eastern Economic Review 1994:13). During fiscal year 1994 (April 1994-March 1995) Tokyo gave Burma three debt relief grants totaling ¥12.0 billion, twice as much as in the previous year (See Table 1).
Then, in March 1995, while the Ministry of International Trade and Industry quietly restored financial risk guarantees for Japanese companies investing in Burma (Far Eastern Economic Review 1995:12), the government announced a new grant of ¥1.0 billion (US$10.0 million, the largest allocation of new aid since 1988) to be used to increase food production in Burma's border areas. Foreign Minister Kono Yoohei downplayed the political significance of this action, saying that "[The government] decided on the grant aid as humanitarian assistance. Therefore, there is no change in our aid policy" (The Japan Times, 1995). However, The Japan Times also cited Kono as saying that "Japan hopes that the military junta will take the aid as Tokyo's political message that Tokyo wants to see improvements in human rights in Myanmar" (The Japan Times 1995). In May 1995, an additional ¥4.0 billion in debt relief grant monies was given, presumably with the same or similar implied conditions with respect to human rights issues (Lintner 1995:15).
Aung San Suu Kyi's release on 10 July 1995 represents the culmination of "sun diplomacy." Japan was the first foreign government to be informed of her release, a fact which one Western journalist claimed "seems to indicate that Tokyo must have played an important behind-the-scenes role in the whole affair" (Lintner 1995:15). As in February 1989, when Japan normalized relations with SLORC and the junta announced a schedule for holding multiparty elections, it seemed in the late summer of 1995 that a resolution to the political crisis was within reach.
As a further inducement to good behavior, therefore, the Japanese cabinet approved in October an allocation of ¥1.6 billion for the renovation of a nursing college in Rangoon (Masaki 1995:3). This was followed up by a visit from SLORC deputy chairman General Maung Aye, who stopped in Japan from October 30 to November 8 and, together with Economic Planning Minister David O. Abel, visited various private companies and queried Japanese Foreign Ministry staff about future ODA funding (Masaki 1995a:19; Myanmaa Nyuusu 1995-96:4, 5). SLORC most likely hoped the meeting would lead to a full reopening of ODA, but Tokyo remained noncommittal in its public statements on the matter. In the words of one Japanese official in February 1996: "So far as aid to Myanmar is concerned, our policy is to decide case by case in consideration of the current situation, its democratization and protection of basic human rights" (International Herald Tribune 1996).
In an interview in the monthly magazine This Is Yomiuri, published by the Yomiuri Shimbun group, Suu Kyi specifically expressed her opposition to even humanitarian aid from Japan:
Interviewer: Let's talk about Japanese aid. Before my coming [to Burma], in discussions with various persons, it became apparent that the Japanese Foreign Ministry is taking the approach of neither resuming full-scale aid nor stopping aid completely on the basis of principle. 'Humanitarian aid or aid that will be especially effective in raising the people's livelihood will be undertaken on a case-by-case basis. But Daw Suu Kyi opposes absolutely all aid,' or so it has been said.
SUU KYI: The reason I oppose all ODA is that I don't think it is effective in
improving the people's livelihood. . . . One of these [ODA] programs
[involves] construction of new facilities for
the nursing college [
will secure contracts for construction of the facilities are people with close
ties to the regime. They'll make money on the contracts. Those who will be
chosen to attend the school will be those with close ties, including blood
ties, to the junta. There is no guarantee that in future these people
will work to benefit the nation as a whole. To get money, they may
work in a private hospital or go overseas. . . . (This Is Yomiuri , 1996: 204,
The Limits of "Sun Diplomacy"
normalization, the Sun diplomacy constituency envisioned its role as that of a
middleman between Aung San Suu Kyi and SLORC, encouraging the two sides to
engage in dialogue that might lead to political settlement. Continuing friction
between the two sides, however, frustrated this attempt at mediation. After her
release from house arrest, Daw Suu Kyi called for open dialogue with SLORC but
gained no response. Tensions further escalated when the NLD announced its
boycott of the November 1995 National Convention, and then finally boiled over
in May 1996 when the junta detained 262 NLD representatives in order to prevent
a party convention on the sixth anniversary of the May 1990 general election.
As a result, at the end of 1996 there was no more hope of reconciliation than
there had been after the general election of May 1990. "Sun diplomacy"
had therefore failed insofar as SLORC persisted, and even intensified, its
oppressive behavior, as on
these events transpired, the Japanese government not surprisingly began to
hedge in its policy of "quiet diplomacy" so as not to appear too
solicitous to the junta at a time when it was being so openly oppressive. In a
public statement on May 22, for instance, Prime Minister Hashimoto Ryuutaroo said that SLORC was "going against the
democratization process" in detaining NLD members and that he, Hashimoto,
was "closely following developments" (Daily Yomiuri 1996). Chief Cabinet Secretary Kajiyama
Seiroku, too, shifted his rhetoric to be more
critical of SLORC, especially when it was reported in June that the regime
planned to arrest Aung San Suu Kyi. "[I]f [Suu Kyi] is arrested," Kajiyama was quoted as saying, "the government should
do more than just call on the Burmese [
the signals from
For their own part, business interests wanted to assure the junta that for them the policy of "economics first," which implied a de-linking of politics and economics, was alive and well. Keidanren, for instance, strongly advocated resuming large-scale loan projects to Burma and to that effect announced on May 28 that it was converting its informal study group on Burma into the more official "Japan-Myanmar Economic Committee," a redesignation one association official characterized as badly timed but necessary since, in his words, "there's no turning back" [i.e., from increased economic engagement with Burma] (Mainichi Daily News 1996).
Conclusion and Afterword
The maximin strategy's low-risk approach has
also frustrated the Sun diplomacy constituency's aspirations. During 1994-1995,
This leads to the second question posed above -- if Sun diplomacy has
failed, what alternative policy might be more effective in modifying the
regime's behavior? The Western alternative, harsh criticism and economic
sanctions (supported by many members of
This suggests that, given the Tatmadaw's
mindset, the problem is more fundamental than merely discovering the right deal
which will satisfy everyone. The generals are unanimous in their belief that
Aung San Suu Kyi, the NLD, and ethnic minority oppositionists are grave threats
Secondly, their behavior shows that they view politics as a zero-sum-game of winners and losers rather than a consensus-building process which includes, or can include, almost everyone. Given the consensus-oriented mindset of Japanese elites, the zero-sum-game, winner-take-all, approach may be difficult for them to fully comprehend. This may explain why Sun diplomacy has succeeded only in alienating Daw Suu Kyi, who has become increasingly critical of Japanese policy since her 1995 release from house arrest, while exerting minimal leverage on the junta, which willingly accepts any small "carrots" Tokyo sends in its direction, but fails to follow up and make major political concessions, such as releasing political prisoners, allowing the NLD to carry out effective party-building, or halting brutal attacks on ethnic minority populations.
Because of these internal factors, a much-needed political settlement
will probably be a long time in coming, given even the most enlightened
policies on the part of foreign countries. This does not mean that
international support for the democracy movement is futile; rather, that
late 1996 and early 1998 no major changes took place in Burma-Japan relations.
An important development was an increase in friction between
the home front, business interests kept up the pressure for full economic
engagement. In February 1998, the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, one
of the country's most important business organizations, signed a memorandum of
understanding with its Burmese counterpart to establish a bilateral Business
Cooperation Committee in order to assist Japanese private investment (Reuters
1998). The Committee held its first Joint Meeting on
Pro-business spokesmen such as popular commentator Ohmae
Ken'ichi have engaged in "Suu Kyi bashing"
and "America bashing" (depicting Aung San Suu Kyi as an instrument of
U.S. policy) as a way of tarring the Burmese democracy movement with the brush
of American "hegemonism," a perceived
phenomenon that is widely resented in Japan (Ohmae,
1997). This reflects the unfortunate tendency for the political crisis in
In June 1998, veteran LDP leader and former foreign minister Mutoo Kabun established the "Parliamentarians' Group to Support the Myanmar Government," consisting of twenty LDP Diet members.
finally, several significant developments have taken place with respect to
foreign aid policy. On 11 March 1998, the Japanese foreign ministry announced
officially that it was releasing ¥2.5 billion (US$19.2 million) in loan funds
for the Mingaladon Airport modernization project,
funds that had been frozen since 1988 (Asahi
Shimbun, 1998). A proposal to release ¥7.0
billion for this purpose had been opposed by the
"Sun diplomacy" was not overlooked. In announcing the March
11th decision to
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