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The Relationship Between Japan and Burma

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.)

Background History

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 towards Asia.

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.

Minami Kikan

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 them.

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 suffering.

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 army.

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.

Post-War Relationship

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 projects.

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 of maintenance.

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 Burma.

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 government.)

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 suffering.

* 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
Asian Human Rights Commission

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