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Japan’s restrained response to the Rohingya issue

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By Bart Gaens

The plight of the Rohingya, a group of approximately one million Muslim people residing in Myanmar, grabbed constant headlines during the four last months of 2017. The Myanmar government regards the Rohingya, living in the Rakhine region bordering Bangladesh in the West of the country, as illegal immigrants and does not consider the people as one of the 135 officially recognized ethnic groups. Referred to as Bengali by the government, they have been the victims of religious violence on multiple occasions in the past, resulting in internal displacement and large-scale exodus (200,000 people by 1978, 250,000 in 1991-2, and 140,000 in 2012). However, whereas the level of global attention to these earlier instances of ethnic discrimination was rather limited, in late August 2017 international media started focussing on the Rohingya issue after a series of violent crackdowns by the Myanmar military that resulted in allegations of genocide and ethnic cleansing. 

International scrutiny of the crisis is much higher at present compared to the past for several reasons. First and most obviously, there is the sheer scale of the current crisis and the human suffering it entails. Up to 600,000 Rohingya are said to have fled across Myanmar’s border into Bangladesh, where they remain trapped in refugee camps, in addition to thousands of internally-displaced people in the Rakhine region. The 2017 Rohingya crisis flared up after the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a recently created militant insurgent group, conducted a series of violent attacks on government police posts, which resulted in large-scale retaliation actions by the Tatmadaw, the Myanmar Armed Forces, that went beyond the ARSA insurgent group and affected Rohingya villages. 

Global attention to the plight of the Muslim minority is also much higher because Myanmar’s widely lauded process of political reform and democratization, started in 2011, is seemingly not reflected in the Rakhine region. The crackdown on the Rohingya can be seen as contradicting the progress made in the country towards more openness, freedom, and political reform including ceasefire agreements and reconciliation negotiations with ethnic minorities. Furthermore, Aung San Suu Kyi, democracy icon and Nobel Peace Prize winner, has failed to adequately address the crisis. Suu Kyi, who took the oath of office in the Myanmar Parliament in the middle of 2012, and after the elections of 2015 was appointed as State Councellor, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Minister of the President’s Office, has in the past expressed doubts about whether the Rohingya should be considered Myanmar citizens. She is currently clearly caught between international criticism on the one hand, and the fear of losing her domestic political support base and the need to work closely with the military on the other. It needs to be kept in mind that the military continue to occupy a core position in Myanmar’s state structure, including the ministerial portfolios of Home Affairs, Defense, and Border Affairs. 

Western governments and media alike have strongly criticized the Myanmar’s government’s handling of the crisis in general, and Aung San Suu Kyi’s stance in particular. They have denounced her “shameful silence” and “reckless acceptance of human rights abuses” because she failed to speak out against the violence conducted by the military. Asian countries on the other hand have been much more muted in voicing criticism. Japan for example abstained from voting on a U.N. Human Rights Council Resolution of Dec 5, 2017 to condemn the Rohingya situation in Rakhine State, stating that it first would be necessary to engage in a discussion with Myanmar on a fact-finding mission. Japan’s reluctance to criticize or pressure Myanmar or to speak out on possible human rights abuses against the Rohingya can be linked with Japan’s economic interests in Myanmar, its competition with China in the country, and its preferred policy approach of quiet engagement. 

First, “economic cooperation” (keizai kyouryoku) (i.e. Official Development Assistance), marked by the use of public funds for investments abroad in close partnership with Japanese companies, is still a core strategy for Japan. Since the start of political reforms in Myanmar, Japan has been highly eager to re-launch its presence in the country, offering packages including debt forgiveness and re-financing, and striking investment deals. In January 2013 Japan wrote off 500 billion yen (around $5.7 billion) in overdue debt and provided a new low-interest loan of 50 billion yen (around $570 million) to Myanmar. In November 2017 Tokyo offered new loan aid of 117 billion yen (around $1 billion). Furthermore, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) has an important role in the development of the Japan-led Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Thilawa, 25 kilometers south of Yangon. Leading Japanese manufacturing companies including Sumitomo, Marubeni and Mitsubishi make wide use of JICA’s Private-Sector Investment Finance tool, which provides loan aid to private corporations engaging in infrastructure development to assist them in local development projects. 

At least as importantly, Myanmar forms one of the key countries in Southeast Asia where Japan is engaging in geostrategic competition with China, in an effort to curb Beijing’s growing influence in the region. Myanmar’s strategic importance to Japan is clear in terms of economic benefits, natural resources, labour force, and consumption market. Furthermore, the Thilawa Port nearby the Japan-led SEZ is vital as a gateway to the Indian Ocean for Japanese manufacturing companies. It plays an important role in developing a corridor that could increase connectivity between Southeast and South Asia and allow for the bypassing of the Malacca Strait. An overly critical stance on the part of Japan towards the Myanmar government might have a negative impact for Japanese companies in their competition for development with China, including in the sphere of connectivity. 

Last but not least, Japan’s cautious approach to the Rohingya issue is in line with Tokyo’s historical policy approach to Myanmar, known as Burma until 1989. Throughout the period of military rule, Japan has primarily emphasized engagement, applying humanitarian assistance and direct aid support as an incentive for democratic change and reward for positive changes. In general Japan continued to espouse the idea that a continuous aid relationship is vital to achieving change. Overall, Japan has often aimed to offer a middle way between Western and Asian perspectives, including on sanctions. Japan’s “third way” has tended to share an emphasis on universal values, human rights and democracy as prerequisites for a country’s stable development, while at the same time rejecting sanctions. Instead Japan has pursued a policy of quiet engagement and to “speak as friends”, including at a time when Western powers imposed strict sanctions on Myanmar. This has even brought Japan at loggerheads with the U.S., who criticized the Japanese approach as going against “shared U.S.-Japan values”. While the effects of (silent) engagement over outright criticism and sanctions can be debated, it seems beyond doubt that the former approach is more beneficial for safeguarding Japanese national interest, which is vital at a time when Japan is explicitly aiming to counterbalance China’s increasing presence in Asia. 

Dr Bart Gaens is a specially-appointed associate professor, Osaka University, and Senior Research Fellow, Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

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