Japan’s action on Burma changes Asia’s image

Published on December 26, 2008

By Nehginpao Kipgen


The Manila Times – December 26, 2008


Japan’s humanitarian decision on December 18, 2008 to accept refugees from the military-ruled Burma has significantly changed Asia’s image. The move, which is unprecedented in the history of Japan, conveys a message to the international community that there is a country in Asia that opens its doors to asylum-seekers and refugees.


Japan’s policy toward Burma has traditionally been engagement. This principle was stated in uncertain terms by the then-Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto to leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in January 1997 as: “Japan does not feel international isolation is the optimal way for the improvement of domestic situation in Myanmar.”


Ryutaro also added that: “Japan thinks it important to give Myanmar incentives to behave in line with international norms by drawing it out as a member of the international community. Japan also thinks that Asean membership should not provide a smokescreen for oppression in Myanmar.”


Its engagement policy toward the Burmese military regime fundamentally differentiates Japan from many of her Western allies, most notably the United States’ isolationist policy. These conflicting approaches have not helped both the economic giants to achieve their desired goals, but have instead prolonged the military rule.


Japan’s initial hope for Asean leadership to address the situation in Burma has also turned out to be fruitless. Despite Japan’s years of engagement policy, the oppression in Burma continues unabated. The recent arrests and the long-term prison sentences to peaceful protesters was an indication of a failed strategy.


It is, however, intriguing to see that Japan simultaneously opens lines of communication with both the Burmese military regime and the pro-democracy opposition groups. Like many other nations, Japan has also endorsed the role of the United Nations Secretary-General’s good offices.


With the political stalemate continuing to plague Burma, Japan’s policy has seemingly vacillated in recent months. Japan’s biggest Western ally, the United States, has also theoretically shifted its policy. The US Congress created a post for policy chief for Burma to increase pressure on the junta; the White House nominated Michael Green for the position on November 10.


A noticeable strained bilateral relations between Japan and Burma was witnessed in the aftermath of the 2007 uprising, which was popularly coined by many as “saffron revolution.” A Japanese photojournalist, Kenji Nagai, was shot and killed by the Burmese military in broad daylight while covering the demonstration.


The troubling issue surfaced again on the January 17, 2008 meeting between Japan’s Foreign Minister Masahiko Koumura and his Burmese counterpart Nyan Win. Japan expressed its displeasure in a statement: “The Japanese side has not been convinced yet by the account given by the Myanmar police.”


If this major humanitarian policy gets implemented, the Japanese government will accept about 30 Burmese refugees from Thailand starting 2010. This development not only surprises the international community, but also gives a new hope to the Burmese democratic movement.


This bold decision makes Japan to become the first country in the region to launch such an initiative. Not only was the move welcomed by the Burmese democratic movement, but also by the chief of United Nations humanitarian agency.


The UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said, “I am glad that Japan is starting with a small program. As such, I am confident that the pilot project will develop and expand into a regular and large program.”


Japan’s decision has broken the traditionally held perception that refugees are resettled only in Western countries. This sets a good example for many other Asian nations. As long as no democratic society, which equally treats all ethnic nationalities, can be established in Burma, there will be more Burmese refugees.


Her status as an economic giant of Asia and the historical relationship the two countries had during Burma’s independence struggle, Japan’s involvement in Burmese democratic transition is essential.


In the absence of a coordinated international approach, Burma’s military leaders will continue to have the upper hand in suppressing the aspirations of the Burmese people.

Both engagement and sanction-imposing groups must come together to find amicable solution to decades-old Burma’s problems.


It is high time for the international community to realize that neither engagement nor sanction alone, without a coordinated action, is effective enough to bring change in Burma.


Nehginpao Kipgen is the General Secretary of US-based Kuki International Forum (www.kukiforum.com) and a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma (1947-2004).

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