A protest in Tokyo against the detention of Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi and others in front of the United Nations University, February 14, 2021. Image: Facebook

After nearly a month of deliberation, Japan has still not firmly decided on how to respond to Myanmar’s democracy-suspending military coup, a reflection of Tokyo’s deep interests in the Southeast Asian nation. 

If the influential Asahi Shimbun newspaper is to be believed, Japan will not impose sanctions on Myanmar’s coup makers but will instead opt to suspend new official development assistance (ODA) to the country in punitive response.

However, in a separate article published in the Japan Times, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato disputed the Asahi Shimbun report, saying that Japan’s Foreign Ministry will maintain a wait-and-see approach on sanctions.

In an interview with Asia Times, Saburo Takizawa, a retired UN diplomat who has worked extensively with Myanmar refugees, said that the decision on sanctions will depend on whether there is a violent crackdown in Myanmar.

“If the military refrains from attacking civilians, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga will not invoke sanctions as it plays into the hands of China,” he said.

At least 21 people have been killed by Myanmar security forces since the coup, with a marked escalation of the use of lethal force last weekend. Japanese policymakers will thus have to decide how much bloodshed they are willing to tolerate before imposing punitive sanctions.

Mourners give the three-finger salute as the coffin of Nyi Nyi Aung Htet Naing, who died from a gunshot wound while attending a demonstration against the military coup, is carried during his funeral service in Yangon on March 2, 2021. Photo: AFP/STR

Japan’s initial response to the coup took the form of a Foreign Ministry statement released on February 1, the day of the coup, which called for a restoration of democracy and the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) allies now in military detention.

But that same day Japan’s Defense Ministry—through its Deputy Defense Minister Yasuhide Nakayama—warned against taking strong measures such as sanctions. “If we do not approach this well, Myanmar could grow further away from politically free democratic nations and join the league of China,” he told Reuters.  

The Defense Ministry isn’t alone in opposing sanctions. Japan’s “peace” envoy to Myanmar, Yohei Sasakawa, who reportedly has close ties to Myanmar’s top brass, has said that sanctions would “not only increase the clout of China…but could also result in the loss of a key security base in the Indo-Pacific region,” according to a Kyodo News report.

Although it’s not exactly clear what Sasakawa meant by Myanmar serving as a “security base”, his statement underscores how Japan views Myanmar through a strategic lens—that is, as a key component of Japan’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” policy that seeks to build a coalition of democratic countries to counter China’s influence in the region.

Indeed, Japan has deep historical ties with the Myanmar military dating back to World War II when it helped establish its modern military by training a group of independence fighters known as the “30 comrades,” a group that included independence hero Aung San—Suu Kyi’s father.

Japan has maintained cordial ties with the Myanmar military ever since, even during the period when Western countries isolated the nation by imposing harsh sanctions in response to the bloody military crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in 1988.

Yohei Sasakawa (R) with now jailed democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Image: Facebook

Sasakawa has been a key player in Japan’s “quiet diplomacy” with Myanmar over the years. On January 20, 2012, for example, Sasakawa blogged about his relationship with Myanmar’s long-time military dictator Senior General Than Shwe.

In his blog post, Sasakawa said, “In April 2003, former [Japanese] Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori joined my talks with Than Shwe aimed at rebuilding bilateral ties. Meetings of this sort generally last 30 or 40 minutes, but ours was followed by a dinner party and continued for three and a half hours.”

It’s quite possible that Japan played a role in convincing the Myanmar military to liberalize politically in 2011, a process that eventuated in the 2015 elections that ushered Suu Kyi and the NLD to power. But in his blog Sasakawa insists that the Japanese side didn’t bring up the topic of democracy during their long dinner parties with Than Shwe.

Donald Seekins, a retired scholar on Japan-Myanmar relations, told Asia Times, “I think the Japanese government played a role in the 2011 opening, but perhaps not the decisive role.” 

It’s widely believed that the decisive factor in the Myanmar military’s decision to open the country to the world was the fear among top nationalistic generals that China was gaining too much economic and strategic influence in the country.

According to Seekins, “top military people were worried about Chinese influence, and thought that if an easily manageable form of ‘democracy,’ based on the 2008 Constitution could be set up, then the West and Japan could be won over, the people would be pacified and the military would remain in its decisive position of power.”

It was most likely the military’s fear of losing its privileged status under the constitution that drove the generals to launch their coup, as Suu Kyi and her NLD made efforts to change the constitution in ways that would narrow the military’s political power.

In particular, the military was irked by the NLD’s attempt to amend the constitutional provision that guarantees 25% of parliamentary seats to military appointees. When read together with another requirement that all constitutional amendments must be approved by over 75% of parliamentarians, Myanmar’s constitution grants the military veto power that it is loath to relinquish.

Soldiers are pictured outside the Central Bank of Myanmar as people gathered to protest against the military coup, in Yangon on February 15, 2021. Photo: AFP/Sai Aung Main

The military’s fateful decision to launch a coup may have been a miscalculation, as Myanmar in 2021 is much different than it was in 1988. Widespread internet access now makes it much easier to organize resistance and document violence against protesters.

More importantly, after 10 years of quasi-democracy Myanmar people—especially the younger generation, widely referred to as “Generation Z”—won’t give up their newfound freedoms without a fight.

To be sure, the last thing Japan wants to do is alienate Myanmar’s populace, the vast majority of whom clearly want democracy, and end up on the wrong side of the country’s history.

On February 20, to show solidarity with Myanmar’s people, Japan’s ambassador to Myanmar Ichiro Maruyama met with protesters outside Japan’s embassy in Yangon, where demonstrators have gathered to pressure Japan into taking firmer action against the junta.

According to Yahoo News, Maruyama—who sources say is the most influential actor in Japan relations with Myanmar—told protesters outside the embassy “The Japanese government does not ignore the voices of the people of Myanmar.”

Indeed, Japan has engaged in a delicate post-coup balancing act of maintaining goodwill with the Myanmar people on one hand and cultivating ties with the military on the other. This balancing act underlies the policy paralysis in Tokyo over the past month, as Japan’s government has struggled to build a consensus on how to respond to the coup.

Groups in Japan including influential human rights organizations, members of Japan’s large Myanmar community and even some members of parliament have all called for a more forceful response.

On February 2, the Japanese non-profit organization Human Rights Now released a statement calling on the Japanese government to “revise its vague stand compared to the US and European countries.”

Then, on January 10, a bipartisan group of Japanese parliamentarians belonging to the “Federation Supporting Democratization in Myanmar” addressed a letter to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga saying that if Myanmar’s military doesn’t restore democracy Japan should work with the US and EU countries to implement sanctions.

Myanmar citizens living in Japan and others protest near Shibuya Station in Tokyo on Feb.28, 2021. Photo by Taketo Oishi/The Yomiuri Shimbun via AFP

Another group, the Japan-Myanmar Parliamentary Friendship Association, wrote a separate Myanmar coup-related letter to the Suga administration, though its contents haven’t been made public and it’s unclear whether it calls for sanctions.

Kei Nemoto, an expert on Japan-Myanmar relations at Japan’s Sophia University, told Asia Times in an interview that “I cannot say whether these letters [from Japanese parliamentarians] will affect Suga’s policy towards the junta.”

Without a doubt, the coup represents a huge setback for Japan, which has donated and invested enormous sums to Myanmar since the country’s liberalization in 2011.

Japan is Myanmar’s second-largest provider of ODA, and according to Myanmar’s foreign investment authority, Japanese companies have invested $1.7 billion in Myanmar since 2011.

Tellingly, Japanese investors did not change their business plans in Myanmar following the Rohingya genocide in 2017, even as some Western investors pulled out on principle and reputation risk concerns.

At the time, Ambassador Maruyama—who refused to call the violence against the Rohingya a “genocide”—said that efforts by Western countries to sanction Myanmar in response to the brutal clampdown were “utter nonsense.” He argued that the situation in Rakhine state was “complex” and that sanctions would only make matters worse.

In the wake of the coup, Toyota Motor Corp, which had planned to open its first production plant in Myanmar in February, said it’s currently “assessing” the situation before making any business decisions. Other Japanese companies are taking a similarly cautious and deliberative approach to the coup.

Workers lay the groundwork at the Japan-invested Thilawa Special Economic Zone in Yangon, Myanmar. Photo: Twitter

This mirrors the approach of Suga’s government and Japanese decision-makers generally, as Japan is famous for carefully deliberating and making key decisions based on consensus.

Critics of Japan’s cautious style of decision-making say it prevents it from adapting quickly to meet new challenges, while advocates of the approach believe it has benefits—namely, it promotes more informed decisions and fosters unity through consensus.

That may account for the Japanese government’s efforts to closely coordinate with its diplomatic allies on the coup. On February 3, Japan joined other G7 leaders in a statement condemning the coup. Japan has also been in regular contact with the US, which has been putting pressure on its Asian allies to take joint action on the putsch.

Policymakers in Washington know that Myanmar’s generals are much more willing to listen to Asian leaders than Western officials or human rights groups. This explains why former US ambassador to Myanmar, Derek Mitchell, was quoted in a Reuters article as saying it’s “vital” to get nations such as Japan, India and Singapore involved in a strong response to the coup.

“The key will not be just what America does…It’s going to be how we get others along with us, allies who may have more skin in the game, more leverage, or at least better relationships with the key players,” said Mitchell.

As such, it’s not surprising that Japanese ambassador Maruyama—who speaks Burmese—is poised to take a leading role in urging the military to restore democracy, as it has promised to do after a one-year period of emergency rule and new polls.

Although it’s unclear whether Japan has enough influence to coax the generals, one thing is certain: Myanmar’s military grossly underestimated the resolve of the people to preserve democracy through a civil disobedience movement that threatens to paralyze the economy.

The Japanese government’s waffling on its Myanmar policy underscores just how volatile and unpredictable the situation is now in Myanmar. Anything can happen: from another ultra-bloody crackdown to a military mutiny to a new compact between the generals and Suu Kyi.

But Tokyo’s wait-and-see approach indicates that Japanese leaders so far believe the pro-democracy movement still has a chance of winning in the end.