Japan considering ODA freeze to Myanmar after activist pressure

Japan’s Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi has issued a warning to the Myanmar military junta that official development assistance (ODA) will be frozen unless the situation improves, following a sustained campaign in Japan. The freeze would apply to current projects.

In an interview, Motegi told Nikkei Asia, “We don’t want to do that at all, but we have to state firmly that it will be difficult to continue under these circumstances.”

“As a country that supported Myanmar’s democratization in various ways, and as a friend, we must represent the international community and convey that clearly,” Motegi said.

According to official figures, published by Nikkei, Japan is the biggest provider of development assistance to Myanmar among countries that disclose numbers, amounting to approximately US$1.74 billion in 2019.

Japan’s ODA controversies

Japan’s ODA to Myanmar has been controversial, involving links to the military and military businesses.

In March, Myanmar Now revealed that military-owned Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) was contracted to supply steel for the Yangon-Thanlyin Bridge project, supported by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).

The bridge, crossing the Bago River, links to the Thilawa Special Economic Zone (SEZ).

The Thilawa SEZ, also supported by JICA, has been criticised for land grabbing and providing inadequate compensation to local villagers.

In January, seven families were threatened with eviction by the Thilawa SEZ.

At the time, EarthRights International called on JICA and the Myanmar government to “stop following military-era land grab tactics by attempting to force families to accept inadequate and inconsiderate ‘compensation.’”

Japanese ODA has also been announced for the Myanmar Police Force. In 2020, Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs disclosed a grant of approximately US$930,000 for the purchase of vehicles and radios to protect VIPs.

At the time Human Rights Watch called on Japan to “end assistance to military-controlled entities”. The police grant was “undetermined” in April.

“Enough times for considerations”

Activists in Japan, including from the Myanmar diaspora, continue to pressure the government to suspend ODA to Myanmar in response to the February military coup, with petitions and protests, while demanding that humanitarian aid be directed away from the Tatmadaw.

“It’s been nearly 4 months since the coup, so Japan has had enough time for considerations,” said Teppei Kasai, Asia program officer for Human Rights Watch. “Japan should urgently halt ongoing ODA programs, excluding humanitarian aid, to increase pressure against the junta.”

Today, activists plan a “die-in” protests in front of Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with the slogans “Japan stop ODA to the Tatmadaw” and “No more business with the Tatmadaw”, as part of a series of protests since the coup.

In February, a joint civil society letter to Foreign Minister Motegi demanded Japan “trigger human rights-based conditionality” and suspend non-humanitarian aid.

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