ISSN 2330-717X

Japan’s Myanmar Diplomacy – Analysis

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The Rohingya issue in Myanmar has peaked international highlight where human rights, sovereignty, oppression of religious minorities and many more related issues have engaged many countries, not only the neighboring countries of Myanmar, but also others who may not have any direct interest as stakeholders. This is expected as in an interconnected globalised world where interests of nations coalesce, resolving an issue that assumes crisis proportion becomes every nations’ responsibility.

Japan is blessed with a Foreign Minister in Taro Kono who has been taking greater interest in global issues such as in the Middle East, Europe, Southeast Asia or South Asia and has been traveling frequently to talk with his counterparts on sensitive issues of global importance. This is a part of the Abe administration’s conduct of global diplomacy wherein consensus is being sought in critical issues of global importance such as the North Korean nuclear issues, terrorism, China’s growing influence in the world and in particular its policy of unilateralism in foreign policy making.

Japan’s interest in Myanmar is not recent. Even during the rule by the military junta and before democracy was restored without violence, Japan has been engaging with the Myanmar leaderships as protecting its economic interests is basically premised on political stability. So, when over a million of Rohingya Muslims fled to refugee camps in south-eastern Bangladesh after brutalised by the military in Myanmar in August 2017, it called for outside intervention on how to address to the issue. So, in November 2017, the foreign ministers of Japan Taro Kono, Sigmar Gabriel of Germany and Margot Wallstrom of Sweden travelled to Bangladesh to discuss with their counterpart Abul Hassan Mahmood this issue. The combined visit of the high level delegations was the first of its kind since the crisis began in August 2017.

The definition of the status of the Rohingyas in Myanmar is at the crux of the problem. Myanmar law does not recognize the Rohingya as one of Myanmar’s 135 official ethnic groups, thereby denying them citizenship as well as access to basic services such as education and health care. By contrast, the government formally recognizes the Kamans who are classified as one of the seven ethnic groups comprising the Rakhine national race. They are considered indigenous and are widely acknowledged as citizens who have national identity cards. The issue of identity is the cause of the recent violence.

Rohingyas are viewed as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Whether owing to international pressure or otherwise, the government in Myanmar has been working on a citizenship process for undocumented people in Rakhine state. The process seeks to check everybody in the state to determine whether they are eligible for citizenship. As per the existing citizenship law, to become citizens, the Rohingyas must obtain national verification cards before they are granted a status, such as guest citizens or people who can apply for citizenship. So, the issue is complex and sensitive too.

An estimated 655,000 Rohingya Muslims are believed to have crossed into Bangladesh after Myanmar army launched crackdown on suspected Muslim insurgents blamed for attacks on security outposts in Rakhine state on August 25. The three townships in northern Rakhine faced the brunt of the military crackdown. It was alleged that civilians were too tortured and their homes were burnt by the military and Buddhist vigilantes. Many Muslims were killed. Soldiers were also accused of committing random killings, rape, and arson in the villages.

The three visiting foreign ministers interacted with the Rohingya at the camps and witnessed the humanitarian operations by the government of Bangladesh, UN agencies and local and international NGOs. The idea was to garner international support for the Rohingya community living in Bangladesh, which has been hosting more than 400,000 other Rohingya Muslims driven away from their homes in Rakhine in the late 1970s and 1990s. Though the international community has lauded Bangladesh for compassion and generosity shown to the Myanmar people seeking refuge in Bangladesh, the pressure on Bangladesh is reaching unmanageable proportion as the number of refugees keeps on increasing. Bangladesh is engaging in diplomatic efforts, bilateral as well as multilateral, for early and sustainable return of forcibly displaced Rohinyas in safety and dignity.

Continuing his diplomatic outreach, Kono went to Myanmar on January 11 for a three-day visit to discuss political, economic and other issues of common concern to both countries with the country’s top leaders. While in Myanmar, Kono met Myanmar leader Daw Aung San Kyi and Tatmadaw Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. This was the first such meeting since he took office in August 2017. The purpose of Kono’s visit was to discuss democratic nation-building in Myanmar as well as improvement of humanitarian and human rights conditions in Rakhine State. With mounting international criticism of high-handedness by the military on the Muslim residents in northern Rakhine, following which over 650,000 people fled to Bangladesh, Myanmar agreed to receive back the first batch of refugees that were to be repatriated from Bangladesh by 23rd or at the end of January 2018. The UN Human Rights Council condemned the alleged systematic and gross violations of the Rohingyas’ human rights.

Earlier, during their meeting in Manila on the side-lines of the ASEAN Summit in November, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo had told State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi that Japan was ready to provide up to $1.03 billion of development aid to Myanmar. In 2016, Japan announced a $7.7 billion package to Myanmar for both the public and private sectors that was to be spread over five years.

After meeting with Myanmar’s de facto leader San Suu Kyi in the capital of Naypyitaw, Kono visited a village in Maungdaw region in Rakhine state that used to be home to around 1,000 Rohingya Muslims. Kono was the first minister of a foreign country to visit the region since the unrest began. In addition to what Abe had announced in Manila, Kono in a meeting with San Suu Kyi announced that Japanese government will provide an additional $3 million to help repatriate Rohingya Muslims who have fled Myanmar.

It is noteworthy that when humanitarian groups and media were strictly prohibited from traveling to the affected areas, Kono was allowed to visit the affected areas and interact with the people there. It is believed that Myanmar and Bangladesh had already signed an agreement of Rohingya refugees on November 23, and Kono’s visit could have given a push to this initiative. Though the repatriation process was expected to start on November 23, the exact number of returnees remains unknown.

Japan’s offer of financial grant of $3 million to help facilitate the repatriation of displaced Myanmar Rohinya Muslims is well appreciated by Myanmar. Japan’s financial help is also a message to the international community that peace and human rights ought to get the utmost priority.

Though more than 650,000 Rohinyas fled to neighbouring Bangladesh to escape a brutal crackdown in which security forces have been accused of systematic abuses tantamount to ethnic cleansing, the agreement of November 23 does not clearly specify the number likely to be repatriated.

In order to create the right peaceful environment and transparency, it is desirable that the Myanmar government allows humanitarian and media access to the affected areas, work on the resettlement of returned refugees, and implement the recommendations made in 2017 by the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, a group led by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The commission called for reviews of the country’s Citizenship Law, under which the Rohingya are ineligible for citizenship, besides ending restrictions on the Muslim minority group so that further violence in the ethnically and religiously divided region can be prevented. The commission recommended that citizenship be granted to Bengalis who are not one of Myanmar’s official ethnic groups. So far humanitarian groups and media have been strictly prohibited from traveling to the affected areas freely.

In his meeting with San Suu Kyi, Kono also announced Japan’s readiness to provide further aid of $20 million to improve humanitarian conditions and development of Rakhine state. The money is to be paid in a timely manner based on the progress of repatriation. Japan is already a major donor of development aid to Myanmar.

Both Myanmar and Bangladesh being India’s neighbours, what role is India expected to play and what are the expectations of both Myanmar and Bangladesh from India? From India’s perspective, strategic considerations seem to weigh above all other points of views. The overwhelming opinion from the strategic community is that India should support Myanmar to fight the Rohingya crisis instead of supporting Bangladesh. Such opinion suggests that if Bangladesh expects India to criticise Myanmar, then it is wrong.

It may be remembered that on September 18, India refused to sign a global declaration adopted at an international conclave as it referred to the violence against Rohingyya Muslims in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.

Kapil Sibal, former Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs, says that India cannot afford to fritter away its strategic stakes in Myanmar by joining a selective, hypocritical chorus on humanitarian issues by those who prefer to agitate only such as are low-cost for them.

In an article published in The Economic Times, Sibal observed: “The Islamic countries who condemn Myanmar should explain why Saudi Arabia’s onslaught on the Yemenis or that of Turkey on the Kurds is overlooked by them. Why is there silence on China’s treatment of Tibetans and the Uighur Muslims? The OIC [Organisation of Islamic Cooperation] liberally condemns India on Kashmir but is inaudible over Pakistan’s promotion of terrorism in India and Afghanistan.” He added: “The ease with which the perceived maltreatment of Muslims anywhere mobilises the community in distant geographies, even violently, explains why pan-Islamism makes the full integration of Muslim minorities in non-Muslim countries difficult.”

Though Bangladesh’s assistance in helping India fight militancy in northeast is well appreciated, India is also aware that Bangladesh still purchases most of its defence hardware and armaments from China and also supports China’s One Belt One Road strategy which India strongly opposes.

If the argument that Bangladesh’s diplomatic relations with India and China are different has merit, so is the case with India’s policy towards Myanmar and Bangladesh. India is also aware that some 40,000 Rohingya have entered India through Bangladesh. There is a need now to seal off the border to control influx. India cannot overlook the fact that plenty of Rohingyas “have settled down in Jammu and Kashmir where Muslims fiercely oppose the settlement of Hindu refugees as a conspiracy to bring about demographic change”.

If such is India’s stance, can India and Japan cooperate for a joint strategy in Myanmar? On the Rohingya issue, both do not seem to be on the same page and India can only encourage Japan in its efforts through economic means to ameliorate the conditions of the people. But both India and Japan are likely to cooperate to check China’s growing influence and dissuade Myanmar not to fall into China’s trap of development cooperation.

*Dr. Panda is currently Indian Council for Cultural Relations India Chair Visiting Professor at Reitaku University, JAPAN. Disclaimer: The views expressed are author’s own and do not represent either of the ICCR or the Government of India. E-mail: [email protected]


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Dr. Rajaram Panda

Dr. Rajaram Panda

Dr. Rajaram Panda, former Senior Fellow at IDSA, New Delhi, and until recently ICCR Chair Professor at Reitaku University, Japan, is at present Lok Sabha Research Fellow, Parliament of India. E-mail: [email protected]

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