Japan should not follow the Western policy on Myanmar: Diplomat op-ed

People hold a candlelight vigil to protest Myanmar's military coup in Tokyo on April 18, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO (REUTERS) - Japan should play a bridging role to Myanmar's junta rather than following the Western policy of regime change, said a senior official at the Japan-Myanmar Association, which has strong ties with Myanmar's military.

"I argue that Japan must position itself as a bridge between the Tatmadaw and the United States and other democratic countries rather than blindly aligning itself with the Western policy of regime change," Mr Yusuke Watanabe, the association's secretary-general, said in an opinion piece for the Diplomat magazine.

The Japan-Myanmar Association is a private group Yusuke Watanabe's father and politician Hideo Watanabe launched to rally support for the wave of Japan's investment in the South-east Asian country. The association includes retired government bureaucrats and business executives and members of big Japanese companies.

A former cabinet minister Hideo Watanabe has long been Tokyo's point man for economic relations, backing Myanmar's huge development project of Thilawa Special Economic Zone development, and has a long track record of working closely with the junta, including junta leader Min Aung Hlaing.

Myanmar's military overthrew the elected government on Feb 1, citing alleged fraud in an election three months earlier, and has since waged a deadly crackdown which has killed hundreds and displaced tens of thousands of people.

Japan, a major aid donor with long ties to Myanmar, has not placed explicit sanctions against the Myanmar military, unlike other nations such as the United States and Britain.

The Japanese government did halt negotiations on new aid to Myanmar, but not existing aid projects.

"Leveraging its decades-long economic cooperation, Japan can now directly work with the Tatmadaw to reverse China's geoeconomic influence," Mr Watanabe added, also warning of Russia's growing influence in Myanmar.

Any drastic move to cut ties with Myanmar's military could result in China winning more influence, a senior Japanese official told Reuters in February after the coup.

Chinese investment in Myanmar has surged in recent years, driven by Beijing's "Belt and Road" infrastructure plan.

"Japan must realise its historic mission of guiding Myanmar's military government in service of a free and open Indo-Pacific and remain unafraid even if its actions diverge from those of the US and other democratic allies," Mr Watanabe said.

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