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The Irrawaddy
April 15, 1998

Japan seeks respect ? but from whom?

Japan's resumption of ODA to Burma's junta begs questions about its motives
and what its political values really are.

Japan's recent resumption of Official Development Assistance (ODA) to
Rangoon's military regime suggests that the region's economic superpower has
seriously lost its bearings in Asia's troubled waters. 

Tokyo's extension of a two and a half billion yen (US$19.5 million) loan to
repair an airport runway in Rangoon, at a time when Japan's economic
difficulties have compelled it to trim its ODA budget by 10%, comes after a
ten year hiatus in such assistance to Burma. Following the brutal crackdown
on pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988, Japan suspended its generous
funding of Burma's development efforts, which in the 1980s placed Burma in
the top ten amongst Japan's ODA recipients, a fact which did not prevent the
country's economic collapse in 1987. Since 1988, international public
opinion and political pressure from the United States has constrained
Tokyo's beneficence towards its erstwhile World War II ally, but over the
past ten years, Japan has written off more than 40 billion yen in loans to
Rangoon. This is, however, the first time that it has been so bold as to
extend a new loan.

The question is, what inspired this move, since there has clearly been no
improvement in the political situation in Burma.

Japanese policymakers have evidently made the decision that they can no
longer afford, politically or economically, to stand on principle. Observing
that "ODA represents one of the nation's diplomatic and strategic tools,"
Kenichi Ito, president of the Japan Forum on International Relations, Inc.,
which recently submitted recommendations on ODA policy to Prime Minister
Ryutaro Hashimoto, pointed to the need to discuss ways of "enhancing the
quality of ODA because the quantity is falling."

It may be difficult to see how financing a military dictatorship contributes
to this goal of enhancing the quality of Japanese ODA, but it is noteworthy
that in a full-page special report on discussions between bureaucrats and
academics concerning the need for changes in ODA policy, published in the
Daily Yomiuri on March 14, Myanmar (Burma) was the only country, apart from
the United States and China, referred to specifically.

"There have been calls for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to
accept Myanmar as a member," noted Keio University professor, Atsushi
Kusano, "and it has been said that Japan should have supported this proposal
more actively."

Kusano, who also served as chairman of the policy council's task force, went on:
"Tokyo is always concerned about how the United States will react. But the
United States and European nations have invested far more in Myanmar than
Japan has over the past five years.

"Japan should employ a more pragmatic approach as far as business
competitiveness is concerned, or else it will lose markets."

There is certainly nothing new about Japan, described by Ito as an
"economycentered state," putting economic pragmatism ahead of other
principles. However, it is evident that Japan's economic difficulties and
increasing impatience with criticism from the West may be leading to a
tendency to make tacit political alliances with those who share similar
feelings of irritation.

Unlike the United States, which has always been able to distract attention
from its periods of poor economic performance by taking bold, dramatic
action on the international stage, Japan in its moment of economic
vulnerability has repeatedly been told that its overseas initiatives, such
as its plan last year to create an "Asia Fund" to provide its ailing
neighbors with much-needed financial resources, are unwelcome. Always eager
to open Japan's markets, the United States has made it clear that the best
thing Japan can do for the rest of Asia is put its own house in order and
increase domestic demand for foreign goods and services. Thus Japan, perhaps
tired of being told to behave like a good housewife whose place is in the
home, has shown signs of succumbing to the flattering attentions of
governments eager for access to purse-strings significantly looser than
those of the IMF.

Japan would probably do well to clearly separate its quest for political
influence from its purely commercial concerns. The country's most successful
political endeavor to date has been in Cambodia, where a Japanese peace plan
has effected some measure of reconciliation between archrivals Hun Sen and
Prince Ranariddh Norodom. Cambodia has also given Japan an opportunity to
demonstrate that its military is capable of responsibly fulfilling its
international obligations as a peacekeeping force. Commercial interests were
not a driving force in Japan's involvement in Cambodia, although "yen
diplomacy" certainly had a role to play.

The situation in Burma presents a strikingly different picture of Japan as
an international player: calls for dialogue between the junta's leaders and
the National League for Democracy and other opposition parties appear to be
little more than halfhearted gestures to justify strengthening ties between
the generals and Japanese diplomats and businessmen. As reported in the
Nikkei Weekly on March 30: "Japanese companies see the resumption of lending
as an opportunity to cash in on Myanmar's growth potential." Beyond this
display of crass commercialism, the only principle we can possibly infer is
a certain degree of sympathy with leaders in Burma and elsewhere in the
region who regard calls for economic and political liberalism as an attempt
on the part of the West to weaken their respective societies, and more
importantly, their own hold on power.

Japan's ODA Charter clearly disqualifies countries such as Burma, which
spent 42% of its 1993 annual budget on the military, from receiving aid.

It is worth mentioning that the charter, adopted in 1992, was not imposed
upon Japan by any other country, unlike Article 9 of the Constitution, which
was drafted by the United States to prevent Japan from re-militarizing after
the Second World War. Thus it represents an exercise in self-constraint
which lends credibility to Japan's claim that it deserves to be regarded as
more than an "economic animal." To twist it now for the sake of exploiting
business opportunities, and start betraying a siege mentality similar in
some respects to the xenophobic mindset of Burma's military leaders, is to
portray Japan as a country governed by greed and pique rather than political

Contributed by LJN.  LJN was formerly based in Japan.

Burma Information Group
PO Box 14154
Silver Spring MD 20911