Burma: Will Japan show its teeth next week?

The junta in Burma has “successfully” put down much of the protesting in the country, according to NYT, with unconfirmed reports from diplomats of dozens of deaths in the crackdown. The junta is divided as to how to move forward, while a UN inspector has arrived in the country to observe conditions there. This leaves the rest of the “international community” to figure out just how to successfully exert influence and whether stumbling blocks China and Russia can be brought along. One of the many open questions in the crisis in Burma is how Japan will act.

Amazingly, the debate in Japan has been transformed this week as a result of the apparently intentional point-blank shooting of Kenji Nagai, a photographer for a Japanese production company.

The Japanese government has gone from a basically hands-off approach to demanding full explanations at the highest level. Still, new prime minister Yasuo Fukuda has not gone ahead with sanctions and has decided only to demand an explanation and lodge an official protest over the incident. However, most significant is that major commentators have begun calling for Japan to initiate sanctions against the junta, which has so far not been a popular position as Japan has had a policy of so-called dual engagement, giving aid to the country while trying to maintain relations with democracy leaders as well.

Fueling the change in the government’s stance is the fact that Nagai’s death has put a face on the ugliness of tyranny for the Japanese public and the blunt shove and rapid-fire of bullets that felled him symbolize the almost casual brutality that Burma has faced for decades.

The protests’ coverage in the media was transformed overnight at the news of his death and intensified when it was learned that he was killed so brutally, going from the usual “instability in a foreign country that doesn’t affect us” sort of coverage to much more involved reports of the protests that more closely resembled the BBC’s intense up-to-the-minute reporting.

In addition to an increased volume of media coverage, the tone of commentary has changed dramatically. Just this morning, the host of a news talk show noted something to the effect of “the only reason the junta wants to stay in power is to protect their vast financial interests” backing up the biggest justification for targeted sanctions.

Newspaper editorials the morning after Nagai’s death made limited calls for escalated Japanese involvement. From Asahi: “Why not have Japan take the initiative? We must not allow the robes of monks to get tainted with blood.” Yomiuri noted: “As Japan has maintained ties with both the military regime and pro-democracy forces in Myanmar, it should explore ways to contribute to the settlement of that country’s difficult situation.”

However, once the news of Nagai’s apparent cold-blooded killing came out, Asahi’s latest editorial (Title: “Cooperate with Asia to Put Pressure on Myanmar”) dramatized the fact that Nagai continued filming even after being fatally wounded as a symbol of the junta’s fear of free expression of the public’s will. Asahi then called for Japan to initiate unilateral sanctions and wonders why the initial government reaction has been so tepid. “The power of Japan’s diplomacy is being called into question,” it claimed.

Sankei, Japan’s most conservative national newspaper, had a more concrete proposal while sounding the similar tone but did not call for sanctions (title “Time has come for democratization in Myanmar): “Japan, as the largest provider of economic assistance, has a major role to play. We must go further in explaining that if democratization comes to pass, aid from Japan and the West will begin again in earnest.”

Nikkei (Title: “Initiate Sanctions and Put International Pressure on Myanmar’s Military Regime”) goes the furthest of all and calls for unilateral sanctions and full participation in the international pressure on the Burmese government.

While all recognize the key role that other countries, especially China, must play in exerting pressure on the military government, it is heartening that Japanese commentators can see Japan as having an interest in democratization and will not (in some cases at least) merely toe the government line.

Expect the debate in Japan next week to center on whether Japan’s government will announce some form of sanction proposal, either unilaterally or in some kind of international proposal. While the Fukuda cabinet would like to focus on domestic concerns as it must face a tough Diet session, the pressure is on for the government to show it can protect its citizens and “play a responsible role” in the international arena. The Voice of America has described the situation in Burma as Fukuda’s “first crisis” (so we can see what the US would like Japan to do, but it would be smart for US Japan hands like Michael Green to stay out of the debate this time) and the Burma issue will remain at the top of the agenda for a while to come.

Sympathy protests have been going on in Japan (primarily in Nagoya and outside the Burmese consulate in Shinagawa). These protests are critically important to show that the message is being heard in Japan as well and its citizens are keenly aware of the situation. I will be out in Shinagawa this Sunday to show support and I hope some of the MF readers will come out as well!

BTW, Mrs. Adamu has been doing her part to get the message out to the Japanese audience. She has a translation up at BurmaInfo.net, a Japanese-language site for Burma news. The article she has translated is an account of the famous brief encounter the protesters had with democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in front of her home in Yangon/Rangoon. You can read the original article in English here.

The video can be seen here.

14 thoughts on “Burma: Will Japan show its teeth next week?”

  1. Very strong piece. I don’t even want to call it a blog post. We’re talking NYT level.

    I’m of two minds about the sanctions, however. When you think about it, Japan’s insistence on various sanctions against North Korea pretty much fouled bilaterial discussion and marginalized Japan within the multi-nation talks. Maybe avoiding sanctions for the time being and seeking STRONG (and critical) engagement is the best way to go at present.

    I also think that Japanese partnership with China on Burma could help to bring about change AND result in the betterment of the Sino-Japanese relationship.

  2. Thanks, hopefully it gives a little context to the effect of the whole Nagai video thing.


    Saturday, Sept. 29, 2007

    Japan may pull envoy if talks tank
    Compiled from staff reports, Kyodo

    The government will send Deputy Foreign Minister Mitoji Yabunaka to Myanmar for talks as early as Sunday and may withdraw the ambassador, depending on the outcome, Japanese government sources said Friday.

    Yabunaka will urge Myanmar’s government to conduct a full investigation into Thursday’s fatal shooting of Kenji Nagai, a Japanese journalist who was covering the prodemocracy protests in Yangon, and punish those who were involved, the sources said.

    To protest, the government is considering recalling the ambassador and reducing or suspending technical assistance to the country. It will decide on how to proceed after seeing how the military junta reacts to the requests, they said.

    Earlier in the day, Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda said Japan will refrain from immediately imposing sanctions and stopping grant aid to the country, despite the journalist’s death and the violence used to suppress the protesters.

    “We’re gravely concerned. (But) we have to wait and see for a while to decide if we should apply sanctions or not,” Fukuda told reporters at the Prime Minister’s Official Residence. “We won’t immediately apply sanctions because much of Japan’s aid is humanitarian.”

    Tokyo has traditionally used a policy of engagement with Myanmar, in contrast with the United States and European countries.

    Japan has imposed no economic sanctions against Myanmar and has continued what it calls urgent and humanitarian assistance, including construction of hospitals and schools in rural areas.

    Grant aid from Japan to Myanmar amounted to ¥1.35 billion and technical assistance ¥1.73 billion in 2006. According to data, as of 2004 Japan was the top donor to Myanmar of the 23 member countries of the Development Assistance Committee of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

    Some Japanese media reported Friday that Japan is considering sanctions, such as banning Japanese from making new investments in Myanmar, but a senior Foreign Ministry official was leery of applying sanctions too soon, saying they should make sure they have a sufficiently effective impact on changing the attitude of the military government.

    One key factor in Japan’s decision on how to react will be whether the international community, especially China, can unite to put more pressure on Myanmar, the official said.

    “We want to find out how (the U.N.) Security Council will discuss (the sanctions issue),” Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura said earlier in the day. “We will strongly demand (the military government) not to repeat an event like this again.”

    Sanctions are tricky, but this “nuanced” approach of suspended aid and a recalled ambassador seems a little promising. I would urge MOFA to do all it can to actually step up and BE the uniter go further and urge other countries to follow along.

    I think MOFA is really afraid of betting on the wrong horse. If the junta is successful and sticks around for the next 20 years, Japanese sanctions will almost certainly backfire (Investment in Burma and exploitation of resources all comes from China) while Japan is left holding onto its… principles.

  3. “I think MOFA is really afraid of betting on the wrong horse. If the junta is successful and sticks around for the next 20 years, Japanese sanctions will almost certainly backfire (Investment in Burma and exploitation of resources all comes from China) while Japan is left holding onto its… principles.”

    Hey,J-diplomacy has it’s principles.First dress and feed them properly and then preach manners.All in the lines of developmentalism(China not included).And at least we ain’t selling no arms to the Juntas like EU and China.

    Anyway,Indians(“The largest democracy in the world”) are silent on the issue and ASEAN are also reluctant(perhaps with the exception of Singapore)to say anything meaningful.China is desperately manipulating it’s self image so that this would not be a second Darfur for them.There is even an argument from panda hugging China pundit like William Overholt claiming that Myanmar is “not the client state of China”.

    Somehow Japan has become the arrowhead of the international criticism on Junta because of the killing of Nagai and eventually that had revealed the lack of Myanmer policy to bring democracy to the nationbut then again,who does.

  4. Impossible to go on Sunday. Have to work, but I support it from my heart.

    I am highly interested how Fukuda handle it. He has to show that compromise is sometimes not enough. If he fails, that could mean that maybe elections could be earlier that expected.

    I also hope that the Japanese media keep the interest.

  5. It seems more like *China* is the real arrowhead of criticism. Really, the big reason I wanted to talk about Japan’s reaction is because it seems like it could do a lot more if only there were an ounce more of political will. Watching the BBC just now they more or less made it sound like China would be the one to blame if this escalates into 88-level killings.

    The head of the APF company where the photographer worked has actually made a trip to Burma and will try and recover Nagai’s footage – now those are some big balls.

  6. India, like China, has significant economic relations with Burma. It’s disappointing that they support the junta, but nothing new.

    I found the Asahi quote, “Why not have Japan take the initiative? We must not allow the robes of monks to get tainted with blood.” particularly interesting. How much significance has the fact that these are Buddhist monks protesting had in Japan? Is Soka Gakkai/Komeito preaching solidarity? I also wonder if other Buddhist countries, such as Thailand, are inclined to support the monk-led protests more than the junta in Burma.

  7. As you know, Japan gives lots of Official Development Assistance (ODA) to countries in S.E. Asia. When the junta put down the previous large uprising in 1988, Japan responded by completely suspending their ODA to Myanmar.

    I don’t see why the same action isn’t warranted this time around…

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