Myanmar people living in Japan and others protest near Shibuya Station in Tokyo on February 28, 2021. Protesters demanded the release of the nation's leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and others. Photo: Taketo Oishi / The Yomiuri Shimbun via AFP

Since the Myanmar military seized power on February 1, the Japanese government has expressed its “grave concerns” over the coup. It has called on the Myanmar military, known as the Tatmadaw, to “swiftly restore Myanmar’s democratic political system,” and demanded the release of National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and all others arbitrarily detained.

Japan also expressed condolences for protesters killed by security forces, while “strongly” condemning the “violence against civilians.”

Such statements are important, but when compared with the concrete actions taken by other Group of Seven democracies, it’s clear that Japan is not yet using its full weight to pressure the Myanmar military. It has in effect taken a “wait and see” approach.

During this urgent threat to Myanmar’s nascent democracy, Japan should instead use tools at its disposal to press the Tatmadaw and ensure a return to democratic civilian rule. Passive diplomacy will only embolden the Tatmadaw, which continues to commit grave abuses with impunity.

Such an approach also betrays Japan’s own pledge to advocate for democratic values as part of its foreign policy.

About a week after the coup, in which the Tatmadaw nullified the results of the November  national elections and declared a one-year “state of emergency,” New Zealand suspended high-level contact with Myanmar and imposed a travel ban on military leaders. Prime Minister Jacinda Adern also said her government would ensure that “any funding … put into Myanmar does not in any way support the military regime.” 

A few days later, the US government imposed targeted sanctions against military leaders and  military-owned companies in Myanmar, and followed up this month with further sanctions.

The United Kingdom and Canada also announced targeted sanctions on senior Tatmadaw officials, while Australia suspended defense ties and redirected aid engagement to nongovernmental organizations for “the most pressing humanitarian and emerging needs,” including Rohingya refugees.

The European Union’s 27 foreign ministers also agreed in February to impose targeted sanctions on Myanmar’s coup leaders and possibly on military companies as well.

In March, the South Korean government suspended defense and security ties, joined the global arms embargo, and began reviewing its development assistance to Myanmar.

Meanwhile, Japan has not taken any meaningful public action, including what it will do with its official development assistance to Myanmar.

For decades, Japan has been a major donor to Myanmar, providing more than 1 trillion yen (US$9.5 billion) in loan assistance, more than 300 billion yen in grant aid, and 88 billion yen in technical assistance as of 2017.

Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi has defended Japan’s approach, claiming that “it’s not a simple situation of whether aid continue, or sanctions are placed,” and that Japan is “making decisions” by considering “different elements.”

The few “decisions” Japan has made so far have been insufficient, some even counterproductive.

Japan privately suspended a new Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) program that was scheduled to be approved this month but issued no public statement, local media reported. In response to an inquiry by Human Rights Watch, a Foreign Ministry official denied the report that the program was suspended.

Ichiro Maruyama, Japan’s ambassador to Myanmar, met with Wunna Maung Lwin to condemn the use of violence against protesters among other issues, but faced criticism for recognizing him as Myanmar’s official foreign minister. Motegi, who also described Wunna Maung Lwin as “Myanmar’s new foreign minister,” later backtracked, calling him “a person appointed by the military and called foreign minister.”

Japan’s tiptoeing around abuses by the Tatmadaw is long-standing. In 2017, when the Tatmadaw committed mass killings, rape, and widespread arson that drove more than 700,000 ethnic Rohingya into Bangladesh, Japan refrained from condemning the Myanmar government.

Japan has abstained from all United Nations resolutions regarding Myanmar since 2017, refuses to use the word “Rohingya,” and encouraged private-sector investment in war-torn Rakhine state, where the remaining Rohingya endure the crime against humanity of apartheid.

Ambassador Maruyama also “prayed” for the International Court of Justice to side with Myanmar and rule that genocide had not occurred against the Rohingya.

The primary motivator for Japan’s passive diplomacy toward Myanmar, and Southeast Asia at large, is China’s increasing influence in the region. The Japanese government believes criticizing Myanmar would automatically push it toward China. This largely explains why Japan whitewashed the Rohingya crisis and is now idly waiting for things in Myanmar to settle down. 

It also helps explain why, days before the coup, Hideo Watanabe, a former politician and the current chairman of the  Japan-Myanmar Association, met with Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of the Tatmadaw, among other high-level officials, to discuss the “promotion of ties” between the Japan Self-Defense Forces and the Myanmar military.

And why Yohei Sasakawa, chairman of the Nippon Foundation, “prayed” that countries do not “urgently place economic sanctions” on Myanmar, as it will “increase the influence of China.”

Japan’s criticism of the Tatmadaw after the coup was a start, but it should be clear that it fell far short of the actions taken by other democracies.

The government should immediately suspend all non-humanitarian aid to Myanmar and coordinate with concerned governments in supporting a global arms embargo against Myanmar’s security forces as well as targeted economic sanctions against military leaders and their businesses.  

Teppei Kasai

Teppei Kasai is Asia program officer for Human Rights Watch.