By Joseph Allchin
Japan is considering resuming official development assistance to Burma after the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, whose detention eight years ago prompted the suspension of aid.
The announcement follows the visit to Burma last week of Parliamentary Vice Foreign Minister Makiko Kikuta last week, who met with government ministers and Aung San Suu Kyi.
Japanese press suggested the aid would focus on medical assistance in the field of malaria prevention and tuberculosis, agricultural assistance with saline resistant crops, and the potential training of Burmese in Japan.
Tokyo’s aid freeze came into affect in July 2003 but excluded disaster relief, which was provided after the devastating cyclone Nargis in 2008.
But natural disasters are now closer to home for Tokyo. Following the massive earthquake on 11 March that ravaged much of Japan’s eastern seaboard, crippling the Fukushima power plant and sparking the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, the sustainability of Japan’s nuclear power facilities has been called into question.
This led Japanese politicians to declare that the country’s energy future lay with natural gas. Although Russia is seen as a closer and more reliable source of natural gas, diversity is key when it comes to energy security, in particular with a neighbour like Russia with whom the Japanese have quarrelled over disputed islands.
Japanese companies such as Star Field and Star Holdings have reportedly signed deals with Burma’s Ministry for Oil and Gas Exploration (MOGE) to explore for gas in an 20,000 km-squared onshore block in Kachin state’s Hukaung Valley – also the largest remaining habitat of wild tigers in Southeast Asia.
Indeed following a paragraph about China’s massive investments in Burma, the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper cryptically stated in an editorial on 2 May: “We urge the international community to take advantage of the inauguration of the new administration in Myanmar [Burma] to encourage the nation’s moves toward democracy.”
Japan, Asia’s second largest economy behind China, used to be the largest investor and donor to most regional nations. That crown has now been passed to Beijing, as development that the Japanese are still smarting from.
These two critical factors combine to make an expansionist economic vision essential for Tokyo as it looks to reinvigorate an economy that has appeared more European than Asian of late.
The Yomimuri Shimbun does however note that he government in Tokyo has not made up its mind about aid to Burma, with Suu Kyi’s anticipated political tour still under threat from a government in Naypyidaw that claims another tour like her infamous 2003 venture would cause a public disturbance. Such veiled threats could cause the Japanese to reconsider the resumption of aid.