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Prof. Nemoto's The Japanese Perspec

Subject: Prof. Nemoto's The Japanese Perspective on Burma

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August/September 1995


by Kei Nemoto

(Kei Nemoto is an Associate Professor of modern Burmese
history at the Institute for the Studies of Languages and
Cultures of Asia and Africa (ILCCA), Tokyo University of
Foreign Studies.)

Among all the Asian countries, Japan has been in a position to
exercise the strongest influence on Burma.  It is worthwhile,
therefore, to examine diplomatic relations between the two
countries in order to understand the realities of Japan's version
of "constructive engagement policy" and the possibilities that
exist for Japan to promote democracy in Burma.


Japan's post-war diplomatic relations with Burma can for the
most part be characterized as that of the donor of Official
Development Aid (ODA), and the recipient of that aid.  In
December 1954, the two countries reopened formal diplomatic
ties and beginning the following year, Burma became the first
country in Asia to receive war compensation from Japan. 
Burma eagerly accepted this Japanese compensation because
the Pyidawtha Program, the economic plan of Premier U Nu's
administration aimed at developing a welfare state, was
encountering serious financial difficulties.

>From 1955 through 1965, the Japanese government paid 72
billion yen (which was then the equivalent of $200 million) in
goods and services.  A major portion of this was used for the
construction of the Baluchaung Dam in Karenni State and four
major industrialization projects: light vehicle production,
heavy vehicle production, farming machinery production, and
electrical machinery production.

In 1965, at the completion of the compensation agreement, it
was discovered that Burma had received less than that paid to
Indonesia and the Philippines.  In order to make up the
difference, additional compensation was offered under the
Economic and Technical Cooperation Treaty.

Japan also began promoting Official Development Aid (ODA)
to Burma in the form of loans from 1968.  ODA towards
Burma was small in the beginning, as General Ne Win, (who
ousted U Nu in a military coup in 1962) pushed the country
toward self-sufficiency.  However, from the latter half of the
1970s, Burma changed course to actively receive ODA in
order to overcome its seriously stagnant domestic economy. 
Japanese grant aid was initiated in 1975 and from this point
on, ODA from Japan rapidly increased.  

Burma received ODA funds for large - scale projects, mainly
for the development of social infrastructure such as electrical
power, transportation and irrigation.  It also received product
loans for the four major industrialization projects which
included funds for procuring parts from four specific Japanese

The total amount of Japanese ODA to Burma (loan aid, grant
aid and technical cooperation) from the time Japan began
funding until 1988 amount to 511.7 billion yen.  This figure is
extraordinarily high compared with Japanese ODA to other
countries, with Burma ranking seventh in line of aid recipients
during this period.  Japan had become Burma's largest single
donor of aid.  Of the $332.71 million in bilateral aid Burma
received in 1988, 78 percent was from Japan.

Why Japan Continues To Give ODA To Burma

>From 1962 to 1988, the period of Ne Win's "Burmese Way to
Socialism," Burma not only promoted inactive and neutral
diplomacy, it strictly regulated the introduction of foreign
capital.  In spite of this Burmese attitude, why did Japan
continue to give extraordinary amounts of aid to Burma -- and
why did Burma accept it?

For Burma, perhaps it was the critical state of its domestic
economy in the late 1970s.  But why did Japan decide to give
Burma a higher priority than other underdeveloped countries? 
And why did Burma prefer Japan to other donor countries
when it did seek foreign aid?  The answer may lie in non -
rational reasons, such as Japan's special consideration for
Burma and vice versa, rather than rational ones, such as the
economic or political relationship between the two countries.

Ever since the compensation after World War II, Japanese
influential in diplomatic and economic matters have referred to
a "special relationship between Japan and Burma", or the
"historically friendly relationship."

The thinking behind these expressions is that while Japan
brought a great deal of inconvenience to Burma during World
War 11, it also made significant contributions to the country. 
Young nationalists such as the "Thirty Comrades", which
included Aung San and Ne Win, were educated by Army
officers known as the Minami Kikan, leading to the birth of the
Burma Independence Army (BIA).  This army developed into
the Burma National Army (BNA).  Japan also accepted many
Burmese students, providing them scholarships during the war. 
Many of these people (military and civilians) rose to positions
of national leadership in Burma after independence. 
Therefore, when they stood up to build a new Burma, the
feeling was that Japan should give the them support. 

Takashi Suzuki, the former ambassador to Burma who was
stationed there from 1971 through 1974, details this line of
thought in his memoir on the history of Japan - Burma
relations [T.  Suzuki, 1977, A Country Called Burma, PHP
Research Institute, Tokyo].  He especially emphasizes the
achievements of Burma's anti-colonial vanguard forces, the
Thirty Comrades, and the BIA, then goes on to declare...
"Burma is one country that is most worthwhile for Japan to
support." He points out "the people of Burma are friendly and
good natured, sincere, thrifty, forgetful of past misery with
their hearts of Buddhists [sic], with good communication with
the Japanese people and very little resentment towards
Japanese, and that Japan had a special relationship with Burma
from a historic perspective."

Suzuki's memoir, however, fails to consider other important
elements that cannot be ignored when recalling the history of
independence in Burma including the anti - Japanese struggle
that developed among the BNA in 1945 and the process of
crucial negotiations for independence with British authorities
under the leadership of Aung San between 1945 and 1947. 
Clearly, Suzuki and others of similar views share a very one-sided interpretation of history.

At the same time, we need to realize that the Burmese did their
part to foster this idea of a special relationship with Japan. 
One need only to look at the views of the Burmese government
regarding the struggle for independence as written in school
textbooks after independence and particularly after 1962. 
These views center around the Minami Kikan and the birth and
activities of the BIA.  Although the historical significance of
the all - out revolt against the Japanese Army by the BNA in
1945 is strongly stressed, the Minami Kikan, which gave birth
to and guided the BIA is described as a group of Japanese
people who understood the Burmese nationalists' aspiration
towards independence.  This posture of describing the Minami
Kikan (which was actually no more than a one-time spy
organization of the Japanese Army) positively, or at least not
labeling the Kikan as fascist, came about through the friendly
relationship that existed between the organization's members
and the Burmese Thirty Comrades.  This view justified to the
Burmese nation the creation of the National Army.

In 1980, the Burmese government publicly announced the
achievements of the Minami Kikan by decorating former
members with the Order of Aung San.  Also, in March 1983,
during a visit to Burma of then Japanese Foreign Minister
Shintaro Abe, Burmese President San Yu told the Foreign
Minister that, in one sense, Japan had helped Burma to achieve
independence.  He openly stated that the Japanese Army made
it possible for the young Burmese nationalists to acquire
political skills.  At a later date, Foreign Minister Abe wrote
that through his talks with important people in the Burmese
government, he could sense "their strong friendliness and great
expectations with Japan." Reactions by the Burmese
government, though perhaps mere gestures for obtaining as
much aid from Japan as possible, helped to justify the Japanese
one-sided "understanding" of Japan-Burma relations.  It is
worth noting for instance, that every Japanese ambassador to
Burma in the 1960s, '70s and early '80s enjoyed better access
to Ne Win than other ambassadors.


In 1987, a year before the nationwide democratic uprising,
Japan secretly tried to persuade Burma to shift toward an open
economic system.  Then in 1988, Burma witnessed the largest
anti- government mass movement in its history, and on
September 18 of that year, the Army (Tatmadaw) regained
control over the movement and established the State Law and
Order Restoration Council (SLORC).

The Japanese government was among the first nations to
recognize the SLORC (February, 1989).  Although Japanese
ODA stopped temporarily during the time of the uprising, it
was later resumed, but limited to on - going projects, technical
cooperation, and emergency humanitarian assistance.  A freeze
was put on new loans.

>From the beginning, the basic Japanese posture toward
SLORC has been one of soft persuasion.  It has not resorted to
economic sanctions.   Japan behaves as a good friend,
persuading SLORC to open up Burma's economy as well as to
move toward democracy and stop human rights violations. 
The Japanese government expects the Burmese military regime
to change on its own, even though it has sometimes been
irritated by SLORC's stubbornness.

While this soft approach towards SLORC is rooted in the
perceived historically friendly relationship between the two
countries, it should be noted that Japan's purpose in
maintaining this approach has shifted gradually over the last
seven years.  Though still friendly towards Burma, Japan's
reasons for being so have changed significantly.

First, China's increasing influence in Burma since 1989, both
economically and militarily, has made Japan nervous.  The
Japanese government has responded by urging Burma to enter
the international community and to decisively adopt a market -
oriented economic policy.  This position is basically shared by
the members of ASEAN and India -- the countries that most
fear China's penetration into Southeast Asia and the Indian

Second, Burma's rapid economic growth since 1992, which
has been supported by the ample foreign investment of several
countries belonging to the Newly Industrializing Economies
(NIES), made Japan even more confident in its policy.  Even
though Japan is aware that SLORC has little intention of
developing a long- term economic plan, the Japanese
government has encouraged and appreciated the economic
"change." This position is essentially based on a presumption
that economic development itself will be followed by
democratization; a presumption which is debatable among
scholars, and unacceptable to Aung San Sun Kyi and the
opposition.  Although Burma faces a serious problem of an
enlarging gap between rich and poor barrier to democratization
- this fact is underestimated by Japan.

Third, Burma is one of the few countries where Japan can
exercise independent diplomacy, free from the influence of the
United States.  Japan realizes that the U.S. has little economic
or diplomatic interest in Burma and that America's rigid
human rights - oriented position towards Burma has not
brought fruitful results.  Clearly, SLORC feels little pressure
from the United States.  It seems then that the more the U.S.
adopts rigid diplomacy, the more Japan adopts a "friendly"

Last but not least, it is undeniable that Japan's big corporations
have become more interested in Burma than ever before. They
see the country as the last big market in Southeast Asia and
believe that, should they procrastinate in their investments,
they may lose a chance to gain the economic upper hand in
Burma. Some of these impatient corporations were already
investing, long before Aung San Suu Kyi's release. This
eagerness by Japanese businessmen for early investment may
have encouraged the government to persuade SLORC to show
more changes on the economic and political fronts. Very likely
the Japanese government indicated to SLORC its willingness
to resume full - scale ODA in the near  future - if SLORC
released Aung San Sun Kyi.


SLORC understands very well that in order to sustain
investment from major multinational corporations it must have
infrastructure. The military administration knows that the type
of foreign investment presently in Burma, which consists
mainly of smaller corporations, is insufficient for the country's
long - term economic development.  Burma will need the
investment of major multinational  corporations.  At the same
time, SLORC realizes that it must not depend too heavily on
China.  It is natural for SLORC, therefore, to turn to Japan for
large scale ODA.

As a result, SLORC took advantage of the Suu Kyi card.  It
released Aung San Suu Kyi unconditionally, but thus far has
ignored her request for dialogue.  Her release is a nominal
concession for SLORC, which is not looking toward
promoting democracy or working toward national conciliation. 
SLORC.'s aim was only one: Japan's positive response.  Japan
has not only welcomed the release but also indicated gradual
resumption of full - scale ODA to Burma in the near future. 
For the moment then, SLORC has achieved its goal.

Japan and Burma have entered into a new understanding of
their "historically friendly relationships.  Now, they need each
other for different reasons than they did before 1988.  It is
difficult, however, to know whether this relationship will
advance democratic reforms in Burma, because it is apparent
that democratization and human rights have been given at best,
secondary importance by both governments.  Instead, the focus
of the two countries is economic growth. 

At this stage it is anyone's guess as to whether this will bring
about democracy in Burma.  Certainly, the world is watching
to see whether Japan will choose to help steer the course in that

The Minami Kikan was a special Japanese military unit led by
Colonel Keishi Suzuki.  It was established in February 1941
and abolished in July 1942.  The unit's aim was to weaken
British rule in Burma by clandestinely providing arms and
military training to young Burmese nationalists.