Tetsuro Usul & Claire Debenham*
(On June 8, i989, the State Law and Order Restoration Council
[SLORC] changed its country's name from the Union of Burma to-
the Union of Myanmar. Historically, the name "Myanmer"
refers only to the majority Burmese people, not to the other
tribal peoples, such as the Karen or Kachin. The name
"Burma" is also problematic: it comes from
"bama," which also refers only to the majority Burmese
population. During the independence movement in the 1930s,
however, the nationalist Thakin Party used "bama" as a
label to include all of the peoples of Burma. SLORC wanted to
change Burma's image and so changed - its name. However, we
prefer to use the original name as it is more inclusive.)
Japanese businesses have been interested in Burmese natural
resources since the beginning of this century. Rice, cotton and
lead were initial exports from Burma to Japan, and cotton clothes
were imported. At the beginning of the 1920s, a Japanese
consulate opened in Rangoon, and Japanese guesthouses, shops and
restaurants were started. Some Japanese -even went as Christian
missionaries. During the 1930s, the volume of trade increased,
but it never exceeded 4% of Burma's total trade.
In 1933, the Japan-Burma Association was established by
Japanese businessmen. They did not work to develop an economic
relationship but instead functioned as a propaganda bureau for
Japanese culture and goods. Two years earlier the Japanese army
had invaded China and occupied Manchuria, setting up the puppet
regime of Manchuria. They were preparing their move southward to
establish the "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere."
In Burma, at that time a British colony, the Japanese who lived
there were spreading propaganda about Japan's good intentions
In November 1936, an election for the lower house of the
Burmese Parliament was held. Keneko Toyoji, a diplomat at the
Japanese consulate in Rangoon, supported the candidacy of U Saw
Oo, who had visited Japan and was pro-Japanese in policy; Kaneko
donated large sums of money to his campaign. Japanese military
intelligence was also involved in the transaction.
(U Saw's story is interesting. He was a man who loved his
country but became squeezed-- between the British and the
Japanese -and who eventually became the victim of his own
ambitions. He won the 1936 election and went on to become prime
minister in 1940. He was jailed by the - British for contacting
Japanese intelligence on a trip to Lisbon in 1940 and was
imprisoned in Uganda during the war. In 1946, he returned to
Burma but found no place in a nation moving rapidly towards
independence. Isolated and powerless, he arranged for the
assassination of nationalist leader Aung San in 1948 in the hope
that the British would appoint him again as prime minister.
However, his part in the killing was discovered, and he was
executed soon after Burma became independent.)
Chiang Kai-Shek, the Chinese nationalist leader fighting the
Japanese, was supported by France, Britain and the United States,
who sent supplies to him through Vietnam, then a French colony.
Japan, anxious to cut this supply route, occupied Indochina (now
Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) after Nazi Germany occupied France in
September 1940. However, a second supply line via Burma had
akeady been opened in January 1939. This Burma route went from
Rangoon to Chungking via Mandalay, Lashio, Paoshan and Kungming.
Tens of thousands of tons of war materiel reached the Chinese
nationalists by this route, creating difficulties for the
Japanese army, which became desperate to cut this supply line.
As the Second World War proceeded, Japanese intelligence
activities in Burma, based around the Japanese consulate and the
Japan-Burma Association, increased. Intelligence operatives
secretly tried to forge relationships with Burmese nationalists
to subvert the British administration, and they supported the
popular movement against colonialism, promoting the idea that
Japan was the potential liberator of Asia. The long-term aim of
these activities was to cut the Burma route and isolate the
Chiang Kai-Shek regime.
Col. Suzuki Keiji of the Japanese army travelled to Burma in
June 1940, ostensibly as the secretary of the Japan-Burma
Association and a correspondent of the Yomiuri newspaper. He used
the pseudonym Minami Masuyo. After his arrival, Japanese
intelligence activities were increased dramatically. At that
time, a small splinter group, the Thakin (Owner) Party, had split
from the General Council of Burmese Associations (GCBA), the main
nationalist group, and had become very active. Thakin members
adopted a militant stance and were prepared to fight the British
and, thus, were seeking support from other countries. Suzuki
contacted the Thakin leaders and realized that the group was
going to be a major player in the struggle for independence. It
would be a very suitable ally for the Japanese.
The secretary of Thakin was Aung San. He and another Thakin
leader, Hla Myaing, escaped in a cargo ship to Amoy (China) in
1940, both to avoid arrest by the British and to seek support for
their armed struggle. In Amoy, they tried to contact the Chinese
Communist Party but were unable to add so; instead, they were
arrested by the Kempeitai (Japanese military police), who had
been ordered by Suzuki to find them, and taken to Tokyo. There
they met Suzuki, who explained his plan to give Japanese military
training to a group of young Burmese fighters and to support the
independence struggle. The two Burmese were aware of the terrible
suffering inflicted by the Japanese army in China, and thus, they
did not wholly trust Suzuki. However, they were prepared to work
with him in their common fight against the British.
In February 1941, Suzuki persuaded the army and navy to
establish the Minami Kikan (South Qrganization) as a covert
military intelligence group in Burma. Some of the members were
seconded from the Japanese army and navy; others were Japanese
civilians living in Burma. Suzuki was its head. The
organization's purpose was twofold: to cut the Burma supply route
to China and to promote Burmese independence.
Minami Kikan decided to arrange for the military training of a
few dozen Burmese independence activists outside the country and
to send them back as an armed force to fight the British. They
also wanted to - establish a pro-Japanese government with army
support. In March 1941, Aung San secretly returned to Burma to
choose people from the Thakin Party and the All-Burma Student
Democratic Union (ABSDU) to be smuggled to Japan. Thirty young
Burmese men (the Thirty Comrades) received military training at a
base on Hainan Island off the Chinese coast. Ne Win was one of
On Dec. 9, 1941, Japan declared war on the United States and
Britain with the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. On Dec. 26, the
Burmese Independence Army (BIA) was created in Bangkok by Minami
Kikan with 200 Burmese members. Suzuki was its commander-in-chief
and Aung San its lieutenant-general. In January 1942, they
crossed the border into Burma along with the Japanese 15th Army,
marking the beginning of a three-and-a-half-year period of
suffering for the people of Burma.
The Japanese army's advance was accompanied by raping,
.looting and murder. Witnesses reported women's bodies lying in
the street after the army had passed through; they had been
killed after being gang raped. Ordinary people were conscripted
as porters to carry supplies and ammunition to the border areas.
Suspects questioned by the Kempeitai were tortured by electric
shock, their repeated immersion in water and the extraction of
their fingernails. Many people suffered and died. These methods
were passed on to the Burmese army and are still in use today.
There were also acute economic problems. Prices jumped to more
than 300 times their pre-war level, and the level of rice exports
decreased to 11% of its previous amount. Food and basic materials
were in short supply, and rampant inflation caused widespread
The BIA changed its name at this point to the Burma Defense
Army (BDA) and was put under the command of the Japanese 15th
Army. The Japanese treated the BDA as a supplementary unit and
did not take it seriously in running the country. The BIA had
made several declarations of independence, but these were all
disallowed by the Japanese authorities.
On Aug. 1, 1942, the Japanese army set up a puppet government
under a Burma nationalist called Ba Maw. Exactly one year later
this government declared Burma's independence and was recognized
by the Japanese. The BDA again changed its name to the Burma
National Army (BNA), and Aung San was appointed as defense
minister. In fact though, Burma was a dependency of Japan; power
was concentrated in Ba Maw, who was under the control of the
Japanese. Had he not followed Japanese policy, he would have been
killed by the army.
Aung San had believed that the Japanese army - would cooperate
in the Burmese independence struggle. Now, however, he realized
that the BIA had merely been used by the Japanese in order for
them to occupy Burma, not to support independence. From the
middle of 1943, secret anti-Japanese activities began. Ethnic
minorities, such as the Karen, Kachin and Kayah, began guerrilla
warfare (with support from the Allies). Among the Burman people,
three groups banded together: the Burmese Communist Party, the
People's Liberation Party and the BNA. They contacted the Allies
in India and tried to organize farmers and students to form an
underground movement. In the middle of 1944, the Japanese Imphal
operation, which attempted to occupy Imphal in India, was halted,
and the whole Japanese army tried to escape through Burma. The
anti-Japanese groups had already organised the Anti-Fascist
People's Freedom League (AFPFL) of which Aung San became the
chair. They prepared a general uprising against the Japanese
After Mandalay had fallen to the British in March 1945, Aung
San ordered the BNA to mutiny, and the farmer's movement joined
the rebellion. This began an AFPFL uprising throughout Burma.
About 1,000 Japanese soldiers were killed, and the Japanese army
fled towards the Thai border. Fighting continued in Burma until
May 1945. In August, after the dropping of the atomic bombs,
Japan surrendered unconditionally to the Allies.
During the Japanese occupation, 330,000 soldiers had been sent
to Burma of whom 190,000 had died in fighting, from sickness or
from starvation. The occupation speeded up the transfer of power
among the nationalists from the GCBA to the Thakin Party. It also
gave birth to the BNA, which has been a powerful force in the
country ever since.
The post-war relationship between Burma and Japan officially
began in November -1954 when the two countries signed a peace
treaty. In the following month, each country upgraded its
diplomatic relations from consular to ambassadorial status. At
the same time, they signed an agreement on war reparations, which
began in 1955. (Burma was the first country in Southeast -Asia to
accept Japanese reparations.) The prime minister at that time, U
Nu, was in desperate need of money to shore up his bankrupt
government. His main concern was to implement social welfare
The Japanese government paid~))-~ US0 million to Burma from
1955 to 1965. The money was' used for the construction of the
Balachuang Dam hydroelectric plant and four large industrial
projects: light vehicle construction (implemented by Matsuda
Motors); heavy vehicle construction (implemented by Hino Corp.);
production of agricultural machinery (implemented by Kubota
Corp.); and electrical goods (implemented by National Corp.).
The Balachuang Dam project was a prime example of economic
assistance that primarily benefited the donor country. The
project was conceived by the head of Nippon Koei Corp., Kubota
Yutaka, who persuaded Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru to include
it in the enterprises to be funded by war reparations. It was
never requested by the Burmese government and resulted instead in
massive exports for Japanese industry. The hydroelectric plant
was supposed to provide electricity for Rangoon and Mandalay and,
in fact, at its peak did provide about40% of Burma's electricity.
However, it has fallen into disuse since 1990 because of a lack
On March 2, 1962, Ne Win took power in a military coup,
becoming chairman of the Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP).
Reparations continued without a break, and a second amount was
given in 1965 to bring the total for Burma in line with
reparations to the Philippines, Indonesia and other countries.
Work on the four large projects funded by the second infusion of
reparations continued until 1987 when a total of 800 billion yen
had been paid. An important point to note about all of the
projects is that they rely completely on components manufactured
in Japan and merely assembled in Burma
without any technological transfer. The companies involved
have no interest in transferring technology to Burma, which would
enable genuine development to take place.
In contrast, the Japanese economy during the 1960s was
developing rapidly, and Japan continued to give Burma assistance
after all reparations had been granted. A loan program began in
1968, and a grant program started in 1975. However, from 1969
until 1987, most of the loans had to be used to pay Japanese
companies for further work on the four large industrial projects.
The total loans to Burma amounted to 430 billion yen from 1968 to
1988; grants totalled 94.1 billion yen from 1954 to 1988; and
technological support totalled 14.6 billion yen. This is very
high, considering Burma's small size and level of trade with
Japan. Japanese Overseas Development Assistance made up 78% of
Burma's bilateral ODA in 1988.
Despite this massive assistance, however, the Burmese economy
failed to develop. Instea4, the country fell deeper and deeper
into debt.- Under Ne Win's military regime, human rights were
abused, and war was waged against the tribal peoples. Why did the
Japanese government continue to support such a brutal
dictatorship over such a long period of time when its assistance
was obviously having little effect on the economy? The answer
lies in the "special relationship" between Japan and
Because the BNA was set up by the Japanese and Ne Win was one
of the original Thirty Comrades trained in Japan, there has been
considerable sympathy for the Burmese military regime among the
Japanese government and civil service. Japanese ODA was given not
only to improve the Burmese economy but also to support Ne Win's
administration - in fact, ODA has sometimes had a negative effect
on the economy. Japan's ODA policy, which primarily benefits the
Burmese military and Japanese companies, has frequently been
criticized by Burmese people's movements for helping to maintain
the repressive regime while doing less for the people of Burma.
For example, trucks manufactured by Hino Corp., an ODA
project, have been used by the military. When asked about this in
the Diet, the Japanese government said that it had asked the
Burmese government whether this was so. However, it has failed to
check the veracity of the answer.
After the massacres of pro-democracy demonstrators in August
and September 1988 and the military coup by Saw Maung, the
Japanese government suspended all economic assistance to Burma.
Japan also pressed the -Saw Maung regime to open Burmese markets
to foreign companies. Saw Maung responded by introducing a law in
November 1988 that supposedly liberalized the Burmese economy and
allowed foreign companies to invest; however, the country did not
move towards democracy. Nevertheless, on Feb.17, 1989, the
Japanese government reversed its position, recognized Saw Maung's
regime and announced the resumption of on-going ODA projects in
Burma. (Tokyo did state, however, that no new projects would
begin until power was transferred to a democratically elected
Why did Japan change so suddenly? One reason was intensive
lobbying by the powerful Japan-Burma Association (now
Japan-Myanmar Association), which represents the interests of
companies that benefit from aid projects in Burma (such as Mitsui
and Co. Ltd., Mitsubishi Corp., Kajima~Corp., Nippon-Koei Co.
Ltd. and Kinsho-Mataichi Corp.). The president of the association
was Otaka Yoshiko, a member of the Upper House of the Diet and
wife of the Japanese ambassador to Burma. The companies
complained that the aid cutoff was costing them money. The
association also stated that the Burmese economy was in crisis,
and this was a bad position for a country that was historically
pro-Japanese. The Saw Maung regime had supported Japan when the
Japanese government was criticized in the United Nations over its
links with South Africa, and the association felt that "that
friendship should now be reciprocated."
Probably the decisive factor in the timing of recognition was
the desire to invite an official delegation to the funeral of
Emperor Hirohito, which was to be held the following week. For
the Burmese government to be seated with unrecognised groups,
such as the Palestine Liberation Organisation PLO), would have
made the Japanese leadership with its sympathy for Ne Win and the
BNA feel deeply embarrassed.
In 1989, there were six on-going grant projects totalling 9.2
billion yen (of which 65% had been disbursed) and 19 loan
projects totalling 125 billion yen (of which only 20% had been
given). The loan projects have been hindered by Burma's inability
to meet its repayment schedule, and several (including an
extension of Rangoon International
Airport) are at a standstill. Another project in trouble is
continuing work on the Balachuang hydroelectric power station.
All the grant projects have now been completed.
Although only these on-going projects were resumed, Japanese
aid still accounts for 80% of Burma's ODA. In addition, the
interest on Burmese debt to Japan is erased each year by -the
Japanese governme~nt (4 billion yen a year) because Burma is
recognised by the United Nations as a Least Developed Country
(LDC). In 1992, the total Japanese ODA given to Burma was only 40
million yen. However, since other Western countries are still
suspending aid, even this amount is highly significant,
particularly as it sends a positive message to the SLORC when
most countries are highly negatiye.
In April 1991, the Japanese government announced a new policy
on ODA. In the future, the statement said, assistance will depend
o'i a country's record in four areas: the country should not have
a large military budget; should not be developing missiles or
nuclear, chemical or biological weapons; should not be a large
importer or exporter of weapons; and should have a democratic
government with a market economy and respect for human rights. If
these principles were taken seriously, Burma, with its declared
military budget of more than 40% of its total national
expenditure and its refusal to allow the country's elected
leaders to take power, would definitely be ineligible for any
Japanese ODA. However, Japan has been less than strict in
applying these conditions to any of the countries to which it
gives economic assistance.
Direct investment by private Japanese companies is small in
comparison with that of the United States and Thailand: it
totalled US0 million in 1989-1990. Many private Japanese
companies have not been eager to engage in joint activities with
Burma, -but a few have made substantial contributions to the
Burmese economy. Idemitsu Petrochemical Co. signed a contract in
1991 to explore for oil and gas, reportedly they (and other
Western oil companies) paid a signing bonus of between US
million and US -million. M.C.G. Corp. in Tokyo bought part of
the premises of the Burmese embassy for a reported US0
million. (It was~ thought that the money would be used to reduce
Burma's foreign debt, but no reduction has been seen; it is
assumed that the proceeds were used to buy arms.) M.C.G.
subsequently was awarded a contract to construct the "Yangon
International Hotel" in Rangoon. However, the company has
since gone bankrupt. The same thing happened to Daiichi Corp.,
who signed a joint venture agreement to build a satellite city
outside of Rangoon; but after investing US0,000 in Burma, they
also went bankrupt.
Japan's Policy of "Friendship"
In December 1990, Sweden proposed a resolution in the U.N.
General Assembly calling on Burma to stop human rights abuses and
to respect the result of the May 1990 general elections, thus,
transferring power to the National League for Democracy (NLD).
However, China and Singapore (both of which export arms to
Burma), as well as Cuba and Mexico, opposed the resolution. The
Japanese government requested the United Nations to suspend the
resolution for one year: they preferred a policy of
"friendship" to prevent the SLORC from becoming
isolated internationally, saying that this was more likely to
lead towards democratization in Burma than was the United States
and European Community (EC) policy of confrontation and economic
sanctions. How long will Japan continue this policy based on the
"special relationship" when the SLORC has no ears to
hear its "friend's" voice? Human rights abuses are
increasing, and the civil war is worsening. More and more people
are fleeing to Thailand, Bangladesh, China and India.
In December 1991, Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace
Prize. The secretary- general of the Liberal Democratic Party
(LDP) in Japan at the time, Sakamoto, issued a statement saying
that Japan welcomed the fact that Suu Kyi had won the prize.
However, Japanese policy towards Burma actually gives the
opposite impression. Japanese support for the SLORC is
maintalning the present situation of civil war and human rights
abuse; it is contributing to Aung San Suu Kyi's imprisonmenL The
award of the prize to Aung San Suu Kyi is, in fact, an indictment
of Japanese government policy towards Burma and should be
recognized as such. Sakamoto's statement is basically deceptive.
There are now about 3,000 people from Burma living in Japan,
mainly young people, and almost all of them have overstayed their
visas but are too scared to return to Burma. About 600 have
joined the pro-democracy Burmese Association in Japan; another
organisation is the All-Burma Youth Volunteer Association
(ABYVA). Presently only three individuals have been granted
refugee status by the Japanese government, and their applications
took nearly three years to be processed. Another 20 or so are
waiting to hear the results of their applications. At least one
democracy activist has been deported to Burma, and no one has
heard from him since.
Since 1989, several Japanese support groups for Burma have
been formed. Their membership includes citizen's groups, Buddhist
groups and a women's group. In 1991, they joined with the Burmese
Association in Japan, the ABYVA and the Japanese section of
Amnesty International to form the National Network on Burmese
Issues. The network's activities include campaigns against
Japanese ODA to Burma, demonstrations outside the Burmese
embassy, street campaigns and efforts in general to raise the
consciousness of the Japanese people. It also supports students
and refugees on the Thai-Burma border, sending medicine, clothes,
food and mosquito nets.
If the Japanese government wants to persist with its policy of
"friendship" towards Burma, it should consider who its
friends really are or should be:At present, Japan is friendly
with the SLORC, but the SLORC is hated by most people in Burma.
The ones who truly need Japan's friendship are the people who are
* Tetsuro Usui - Group for Burmese Concerns in Japan.
Claire Debenham - Center for Christian Response of Asian
Issues of the National Council of Churches in Japan.
Posted on 2001-08-31