By Aye Nai
Activists gathered outside the Japanese foreign ministry in Tokyo at the weekend to protest the visit of a top Burmese government official, echoing warnings from Human Rights Watch that Japan should prioritise dialogue on political prisoners in Burma over that of business.
Wunna Maung Lwin rounded off a three-day visit to Japan on Saturday last week, becoming the first foreign minister to visit the country since 1995. Japan has mooted the idea of resuming Official Development Assistance (ODA) to Burma in the wake of the new government’s apparently reformist agenda and the release of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi last year.
Myat Thu, a Burmese national and organiser of the protest in Tokyo, told DVB that Japan should only resume ODA “after studying [the situation] thoroughly”.
“We are also calling [on Japan] to urge the Burmese government through Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin to release all political prisoners and immediately stop the fighting in ethnic regions,” he added.
Protesters reportedly tried to hand a letter to foreign ministry staff who refused to accept it.
Kanae Doi, Japan director at Human Rights Watch, urged Tokyo to resist taking the signs of change in Burma at face-value, and called for greater scrutiny from Japanese policymakers.
“Japan should not be seduced into thinking that Burma’s recent announcements and gestures are sufficient when abuses continue in ethnic areas and many hundreds of political prisoners remain behind bars.”
Ties between the two countries soured after Aung San Suu Kyi’s detention in 2003, before nose-diving following the shooting of Japanese photojournalist Kenji Nagai by a Burmese solider in September 2007. Now, however, they appear to be warming.
But any resumption of cordial relations at a time when human right violations are still ongoing in Burma would contradict Japan’s stated policy on Burma, which is to encourage “solid democratisation and national reconciliation,” the group said.
Following a visit to Burma by Vice Foreign Minister Makiko Kikuta in June, Japanese press suggested the resumption of aid would focus on medical assistance in the field of malaria prevention and tuberculosis, agricultural assistance, and the potential training of Burmese in Japan.
Japan is also pushing its relations with Burma in a bid stem China’s growing regional clout, particularly in light of China’s decision to block exports of rare earth metals to Japan, which are vital for its booming technologies sector. Both Japan and South Korea have bid to explore for rare earths in Burma.