By Tatsuya Sato, Naoki Kikuchi, and Yuki Nikaido
The Japanese government will not extend official development assistance (ODA) to the government of Myanmar. The aid was scheduled for Cabinet approval this month, although it hadn’t been officially announced lest the cancellation suggests a sanction. Japan is the largest donor of economic assistance to Myanmar. It is hoped that future resumption of new ODA could work as a carrot to increase Japan’s influence over the military government.
On Mar. 9, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that Japan will provide emergency grant aid totaling 19 million dollars (approximately 2.09 billion yen) to refugees of Myanmar’s Muslim minority, the Rohingyas, via an international organization. “Japan will continue to provide essential support for the people of Myanmar,” said Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi during a press conference, confirming the Japanese government’s decision to continue humanitarian support for the country.
There was, however, a grant project for the Myanmar government that Japan quietly shelved after the coup. The aid was to be part of the FY 2020 budget and scheduled for Cabinet approval this month. “It was not a humanitarian project,” said an informed source in the foreign ministry.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato didn’t give a clear explanation for the shelved ODA for Myanmar at a press briefing on the same day, only saying that he was not informed of a project that required an immediate decision at the moment. “There is no new project,” a government official said. Another stressed, “It is not the cancelation of a project that was planned. There just aren’t any projects.”
Even when Myanmar was under military rule in the past, Japan was diplomatically closer to Myanmar than were Western nations and used its relationship to promote the country’s democratization. While Western nations including the U.S. and the UK imposed sanctions after the coup, Japan still prefers not to clarify its position on sanctions to this day, even after the military violence against protesters greatly escalated. Although new ODA won’t be considered for now in principle, Japan won’t present the decision as a form of sanction.
Japan is the biggest provider of development assistance to Myanmar, with the amount totaling at 189.3 billion yen in FY 2019. The freeze on new ODA will be at least as impactful as the Western nations’ sanctions including the asset freeze on the military leaders. “[The importance of Japan’s ODA freeze] will be understood by Myanmar, as well as by the Western countries,” an official at the Prime Minister’s Office [Kantei] pointed out. “It serves as diplomatic leverage,” agreed a senior administration official.
On Mar. 8, Japanese Ambassador to Myanmar Ichiro Maruyama met with military-appointed Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin and requested a total halt to violence against citizens, the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and others, and the swift return to democratic rule. It remains to be seen whether the Japanese model of diplomacy leads to a democratic resolution of the Myanmar crisis.