What should the Japanese government do about Myanmar? Since the military junta under commander in chief Min Aung Hlaing ousted democratically-elected government leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Feb. 1, violence has erupted across the Southeast Asian nation. The new Tatmadaw regime has killed over 800 people, reportedly arrested more than 80 journalists, and detained thousands more politicians, pro-democracy protesters and human rights defenders without due process. In response to this and other abuses, mass protests have erupted across the country, often inciting further violence by state security forces.
The international reaction to this humanitarian crisis has varied considerably. Western governments were quick to denounce the military government and impose substantial sanctions. For example, the United States has frozen more than $1 billion of the junta’s assets and joined forces with the European Union in sanctioning Min Aung Hlaing and others involved in the democratic overthrow.
Governments in Asia have been less forceful in addressing the coup. Japan’s approach under Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga exemplifies the local reaction, which tends to emphasize communication over confrontation. An important regional actor with deep economic interests and a longstanding diplomatic relationship with Myanmar, Japan has publicly expressed “deep concern” about the continuing violence against Burmese civilians and privately pursued dialogue with the regime. This approach mirrors how Japan has handled similar violent episodes in the Philippines, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
While there might be some benefits to this slow, calculated engagement with the military junta, Japan’s relative inaction reportedly has angered the Myanmar people, putting potential strain on future relations. More importantly, Japan’s response runs counter to both the country’s human rights foreign policy and the spirit of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) regional strategy that it helped create. The FOIP comprises three pillars: (1) promotion of rule of law, (2) freedom of navigation and free trade, and (3) economic prosperity and peace and stability.
Many have argued that the first pillar is particularly important to FOIP, because it helps distinguish Japan’s approach — now also supported by the United States — from China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an alternative economic development-focused vision for the region. In not pursuing a more hardline approach against the military junta, Japan risks sowing doubt among other Asian countries about its true support for higher-order law and its resolution to limit state abuses against citizens within the regime, thus undermining the real and perceived differences between the FOIP and BRI. Some in Tokyo have raised this concern; others in and outside of Japan might be soon to follow.
Despite this possibility, it is unlikely that Suga’s government will follow Western counterparts and apply biting sanctions against the Tatmadaw government. Broad-based sanctions would likely further marginalize the Myanmar regime internationally and force them into developing a stronger relationship with China, which could endanger Japanese security interests. History provides Japan a valuable lesson — its 1988 economic sanctions against Myanmar had little influence on the government but had a significant negative effect on the economy.
Yet, perhaps conscious about the possibility of increased criticism over its weak engagement on the issue, Japan recently took steps — more than four months after the start of the coup — to increase pressure on Min Aung Hlaing’s regime. Last week, both houses of the Japanese Diet, the national legislature, passed a motion condemning the coup and urging a return to democracy. The legislature has limited future aid to Myanmar. Perhaps most promising, it is discussing halting all aid and possibly even private investment. The latter idea deserves serious consideration as a potentially effective way to exert pressure on Myanmar. The military junta depends on Japanese aid money and business connections to Japanese companies. Targeted economic distancing would exert some financial pressure on the junta while not completely compromising the ability of the Myanmar government to effectively rule and run the economy, thereby limiting future protests.
This kind of economic decoupling could put serious strain on Japan’s relationship with Myanmar, though. If not done right, the pressure not only could distance the Tatmadaw government further away from Japan but also move it closer to China, a potentially dangerous outcome for regional security. If Tokyo wants to opt for a less confrontational approach, the Suga government could facilitate talks between the United Nations and Myanmar. Tatmadaw military leaders have refused to let the U.N.’s special envoy into the country, intentionally postponing visits until “the domestic situation has stabilized.”
Given this resistance from Hlaing, Japan should assume a bridging role to the military junta and use its special relationship with Tatmadaw officials to draw Hlaing to a U.N.-led peace initiative. The recent release of a Japanese reporter indicates that Tokyo has the capacity to do so, because the junta apparently does not want to upset Japan and thus might be open to a multilateral dialogue, if necessary, to maintain good relations with the Suga government. This option would not heavily strain Japan-Myanmar relations, and potentially might end the brutal attacks on the civil disobedience movement.
Charles Crabtree is assistant professor in the Department of Government at Dartmouth College. Ha Nguyen, a sophomore at Dartmouth majoring in economics and government, contributed to this article.