Interviewed by Ara Chihiro
Higuchi Tateshi was born in 1953 and entered the National Police Agency in 1978, serving as the chief of the Metropolitan Police and other positions. Higuchi was Japanese Ambassador to Myanmar from 2014 to 2018.
I met with Myanmar’s military chief Min Aung Hlaing close to 20 times during my tenure as ambassador. He told me immediately after the 2015 general election in which the National League for Democracy (NLD) scored a resounding victory under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi that he had had military units standing by just in case and was pleased the election didn’t lead to domestic upheaval. Min Aung Hlaing struck me at the time as a person who had calmly accepted the people’s harsh judgment.
This time, however, the election led to a coup. The difference in the military’s reaction stemmed from a sense of crisis that its political power was being threatened, combined with ambition.
The current Constitution of Myanmar went into effect in 2008 when the country was under military rule. As such, it allows the military to be involved in matters that concern the management of the nation, even under a democratized government. Immediately after the recent election, however, the NLD established a new post in the government called “advisor to the state,” which is a de-facto head of state, and appointed Aung San Suu Kyi to it as she was not allowed to become the president under the Constitution. In addition, the NLD refused to convene the National Defense and Security Council, the majority of whose members are military personnel.
The democratization of the government led to a large influx of foreign capital into the country that stimulated its economy. However, the NLD lacked government experience and was unable to efficiently manage the situation. The military, on the other hand, governed the country even when sanctions were in place. The military believed that it was better equipped to take charge.
It is not the intention of Min Aung Hlaing to return Myanmar to military rule. He wants his government to be internationally accepted as a democratic government. By alleging that the election was a fraud, he must have envisioned a scenario in which he would become the president through a revote.
Every time I saw Min Aung Hlaing, he said the military could consider the possibility of revising the Constitution when the country’s democratization and economic reform had progressed to the point where they were no longer reversible. Will the Myanmar military truly and completely withdraw from politics, though? Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like the military is ready to do so. To me, Myanmar’s true democratization won’t be possible unless the government administered by the military fails to govern the country.
Up until recently, Japan had supported Myanmar’s nation-building efforts by actively promoting official development assistance (ODA) programs and enhancing defense exchanges. With all the past assumptions [of the democratization of the country] eliminated by the coup, however, Japan must overhaul these programs.
Meanwhile, unlike the U.S. and European nations, Japan has functioning channels of communication with the Myanmar’s military to discuss practical matters. Through these channels, Japan should contact the military directly and urge them to stop using violence and release Aung San Suu Kyi and other prisoners. There must be something only Japan can do. The international community is looking to Japan to keep spreading seeds of democracy in Myanmar by supporting the efforts of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to send a special envoy to Myanmar by arranging the envoy’s meeting with Suu Kyi and other actions.
Japan also continues to provide humanitarian support to Myanmar, including supplying oxygen concentrators to government-run hospitals in Yangon. The number of COVID-19 cases in Myanmar has skyrocketed since late June, and several hundred people are dying every day as a result. Regardless of the political situation, Japan shouldn’t hesitate to reach out to save the lives of the people of Myanmar.