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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 09:40 10/31/2007
October 31, 2007

Low-key Response to Myanmarese Lament Rooted in History

Japan's muted approach to dealing with junta may be explained by long-held ties, idealistic ideas, but time has come to deal in reality

Masahiko ISHIZUKA (Councilor for the Foreign Press Center Japan and a Lecturer at Waseda University)

Since the outbreak in August of massive prodemocracy demonstrations by Buddhist monks and citizens on the streets of Yangon, countless commentaries and opinions condemning the military dictatorship of Myanmar have appeared in the international media. Some Western governments, the United Nations, and nongovernmental organizations have issued warnings and protests, urging the junta to stop its crackdown on prodemocracy movements and heed the demands of the people.

So far, to the growing frustration of concerned individuals and organizations, little seems to have been accomplished in pushing the junta toward leniency, save for a few token gestures. Myanmar's generals appear unshaken, apparently thanks to the support they get from China, India, Thailand and other neighboring countries that possess economic or strategic stakes in preserving good relations with the current regime.

Middle man

The Japanese government's stance falls somewhere between the international hardliners against the junta - the U.S. begin at the top of this heap - and major powers unreservedly soft on it, China in particular. But Japan has a long history of being persistently friendly to Myanmar in diplomatic terms - much longer than China, which seems to be one of the principal supporters of the current dictatorship.

This policy started in the 1950s, when Japan signed a war reparation agreement with Burma. Even after the bloodiest crackdown on prodemocracy demonstrations in 1988 that killed 3,000 people, as well as the arrest of National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in the wake of the party's 1990 election victory, Japan protested but did not cut off official aid to the country, instead paring it to the "essential minimum" for humanitarian purposes.

This time around, the Japanese government once again looks intent on maintaining the lines of communication with Myanmar, and it appears disinclined to wipe out the remaining channel of aid. Even in verbal terms, the government has stopped short of condemning the military regime in sharp words. The death of Japanese journalist Kenji Nagai in a shooting by Myanmarese troops during a clampdown on the streets of Yangon stirred things up to some extent, but official Japanese outrage against the junta does not seem sufficiently strong.

Editorials and commentaries in major Japanese newspapers have unanimously expressed frustration with the government's stance, urging more straightforward condemnation in words at least, if not actions. To protest and demand detailed explanations regarding the journalist's killing, a high-ranking Foreign Ministry official was sent to Myanmar, but some said a political leader should have been sent to highlight Japanese regret and disapproval over both the incident and the violent suppression of unarmed seekers of democracy.

Plum position?

In defiance of the criticism that the Japanese government is acquiescing to the military regime and virtually supporting it, some support this low-key but consistent policy and regard it as a unique - and advantageous - position from which Japan could persuade Myanmar's military regime to ease up and become more conciliatory toward protestors and democratic forces.

But in the absence of immediate economic or strategic gains - or any other obvious necessity for maintaining such a relationship with an unpopular and oppressive military government - the Japanese position seems rather difficult to explain. It may, in fact, be rooted in historical factors dating from the days of World War II.

The predominant image many Japanese have of Myanmar - or Burma, which sounds more familiar to older generations - is the docility and peacefulness of its people. These ideas were reinforced by accounts of surviving Japanese soldiers, many of whom were mortally wounded, hungry, sick and dying after losing battles in the country and the famously disastrous Imphal operation across the Indian border in 1944. Of the slightly more than 300,000 Japanese soldiers sent to the Burmese theater, 185,000 perished. In the Imphal operation alone, 72,000 soldiers were either killed in battle or died from diseases, with a mere 12,000 surviving.

Even though the Japanese were supposedly their enemies, villagers kindly helped them, according to surviving infantrymen. As a result, many of these men developed a deep affection for and attachment to Burma after they came home.

A novel titled "Biruma no Tategoto" ("Harp of Burma"), written by Michio Takeyama a few years after the end of the war, is one of the most popular and influential works in the postwar period in Japan, having sold more than 2 million copies through the present day. The story is about a solider who decides not to return to Japan after the war and remain alone in Burma as a priest, traveling about the country to console the souls of soldiers who died there in prayer for peace and reconciliation.

The book, which was also twice made into a film, has had an overwhelming influence on the Japanese view of Burma, and its positive reception by readers was in itself owned to their perception of the Burmese as a peaceful, forgiving people. The image thus forged is considered largely to be Japan's own imagination and fantasy, not based in the actual reality of the country. But it did reflect the Burmese people's gentle and merciful disposition linked to their roots in Buddhism.

Brothers in arms

Another historical point is the connection of Burmese military leaders with the prewar Japanese military. The most famous episode concerns General Aung San, father of Aung San Suu Kyi, who together with his comrades in the Burma Independence Army was trained by the Imperial Japanese Army, which wanted to use Burmese aspirations for independence from British rule to fuel Japan's own drive to rule Asia.

Even though Aung San later realized that they had been betrayed, Japan came to maintain the closest relationship with Burma of any major country after the war. General Ne Win - who captured power in 1962 by coup d'etat and established the military dictatorship that has continued to this day - and other military leaders who were trained by Japanese forces continued to feel a strong closeness to Japan.

Though by no means an exhaustive list, these factors may have combined to help shape Japan's current stance toward Myanmar's military government - one characterized by equivocal words and deeds and based on the assumption that Japan can and should communicate with the country's generals. This assumption, however, is quickly proving unworkable, and a fresh outlook is needed. We must listen not only to the harp of Burma, but also to the voices of the Myanmarese people, and deal with today's reality accordingly.

(Originally appeared in the October 29, 2007 issue of The Nikkei Weekly, reproduced here with permission.)

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