Last week I visited Japan to meet with members of parliament, government officials, civil society organisations, and journalists to propose what the Japanese government can do to help bring peace and democracy to Myanmar. As a member of the United Nations Security Council until 2024 and a leading democracy in the region, Japan is in a unique position to tip the scales to help end the crisis and protect Myanmar’s people.
However, Japan’s approach to the crisis in Myanmar has been repeatedly harmed by the actions of Yohei Sasakawa, under his supposed mandate from 2013 as Japan’s Special Envoy for National Reconciliation in Myanmar, and by Japan’s long-standing support for the Myanmar military.
Yohei Sasakawa’s public engagement with junta head and genocidaire Min Aung Hlaing has been a concern of Myanmar’s democracy movement, as he legitimises the military’s illegal coup attempt. His support for the junta escalated in February, when he spoke out in support of its planned sham election, stating to the media that “they must be held no matter what.”
Japan’s response to these shocking comments has been silence. This has raised serious concerns among Myanmar people that Japan is simply waiting for a semblance of elections to take place so that the state of emergency will be lifted and things can go back to “normal”—in other words, to another incarnation of military rule.
Is Japan going to continue its pattern of silence, directly undermining democracy and human rights through its policies?
The government of Japan has long been supportive of the Myanmar military. It helped found the Burma Army and, after 1988, when the military brutally cracked down on nationwide pro-democracy uprising, killing about 3,000 peaceful protesters, it was one of the first countries to recognise the junta as the country’s government.
Japan has repeatedly emphasised its “special ties” to the military to justify its lenient stance. Even when faced with undeniable evidence of the Myanmar army’s atrocities, it has always taken a great deal of pressure to get the government of Japan to take any step that might antagonise the generals. Since the military seized power in February 2021, Japan has offered some superficial criticism of the regime, but has done nothing to sever its ties to the military.
Since the attempted coup, the Myanmar military has killed over 3,600 people and arrested more than 23,000. In 2022, Myanmar recorded the highest number of violent incidents targeting civilians globally. The military has continued attacks on civilians, including murder, torture, sexual violence, airstrikes, shelling, and the burning of houses—all of which can be accurately characterised as crimes against humanity and war crimes. By a conservative UN estimate, there are 1.8 million internally displaced persons in Myanmar, including 1.5 million forced to flee their homes as a direct result of the military takeover.
The crisis in Myanmar is clearly worsening, with the junta wreaking immense harm on the people everywhere, while Myanmar’s movement for federal democracy has made advances to every corner of the country. This time, Japan must act differently in response and support the people’s efforts.
The “elections” planned by the military are not going to lead to the kind of country that the people of Myanmar want to live in or that its younger generation has sacrificed for. Sasakawa’s activities only embolden the military’s crimes, and harm the image of Japan among the people of Myanmar.
The right choice for Japan in Myanmar has never been more obvious. Rather than tacitly backing a military that murders and tortures the people with impunity, it could support the people who are committed to bringing a free and flourishing Myanmar, people who are literally sacrificing their lives for this cause.
There are a number of steps that the Japanese government needs to take to correct its position on Myanmar. First, it must publicly announce that it will not recognise any “elections” held under the junta as legitimate.
Second, it must clarify Sasakawa’s mandate. During my trip to Japan, a Foreign Ministry official confirmed that Sasakawa has not received state funds since the military’s coup attempt but would not say if he still has a mandate. His official position must be made public and if he does still have a mandate, this needs to be terminated immediately.
Third, Japan should open an official line of communication with the National Unity Government and ethnic revolutionary organisations, the legitimate representatives of the Myanmar people. It should also consult with local civil society organisations to effectively support the will of the people of Myanmar to establish a federal democracy.
Fourth, Japan must end its complicity in grave human rights violations and international crimes committed by the military by suspending all Official Development Assistance projects being implemented by the junta. It should also ensure Japanese companies doing business with the military or military-owned companies cut ties.
Finally, at the UN Security Council, Japan should work with allies to impose an arms embargo and targeted sanctions on the regime and to refer the situation of Myanmar to the International Criminal Court. The military must be held accountable for its genocide against the Rohingya and crimes against humanity and war crimes committed nationwide.
During my trip, someone asked me why I took the time to work on Japan. Japan has never really stood with the people of Myanmar despite years of effort by activists and sympathetic MPs, this person said. Isn’t it a waste of my time?
No, I answered. The Spring Revolution is so much stronger than any previous pro-democracy movement in Myanmar. It is intergenerational, led by the youth. It is also intersectional and inclusive, in which the Bamar majority is showing solidarity with ethnic minorities, including the Rohingya, and seeking justice for all. Therefore, I believe that it is in Japan’s long-term interest and in keeping with its democratic values to support Myanmar’s Spring Revolution and its young generation, who are on their way to becoming leaders of a peaceful and thriving federal democratic Myanmar.
Khin Ohmar is the founder and chairperson of Progressive Voice, a Myanmar human rights organisation