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Sunday, Feb. 10, 2008


Eyewitness: Burma from the inside

Special to The Japan Times

Burma's Bloody September came home to people in Japan with the slaying of veteran freelance photojournalist Kenji Nagai on Sept. 27, 2007 in Yangon during a mass demonstration. The video clip showing him being gunned down by a Burmese soldier at point-blank range was repeatedly aired, arousing public anger and forcing the Tokyo authorities to issue a rare condemnation of the Burmese regime.

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Nobel Laureate and long-time detainee Aung San Suu Kyi (top), leader of the National League for Democracy; Senior General Than Shwe reviews troops (above); GREG DAVIS PHOTOS

This was not a warning shot that went astray — anyone can see that the young soldier fired his rifle into Nagai from less than a meter away. In his last moments, as he lay fatally wounded in the street, Nagai raised his camera in what seems to have been an effort to film his assassin, only to slump to the ground. The authorities in Burma — a name preferred by many over the name Myanmar, which was imposed without approval from the nation's elected representatives by the military junta that took over in 1988 — have not returned this video camera or its contents.

Following Nagai's murder, the Japanese government sought an investigation as domestic media pressured it to pursue the matter. However, there has been no credible explanation of why Nagai was killed — and nobody has been held accountable.

The State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) is the new name for the junta that took power in 1988 as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). It was responsible for the bloodbath on the streets of Yangon (Rangoon) that targeted student demonstrators, the so-called '88 generation, many of whom were locked up in prison for several years while others fled to the jungles and refugee camps along the Thai border. In 1990, SLORC held elections — but then ignored the results because the people gave the wrong answer, delivering a landslide victory to Aung San Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy (NLD).

Aung San Suu Kyi, now 62, is the daughter of Burma's founding father, Aung San, who was trained by the Japanese in the 1940s to help oust the British. He subsequently turned against the Japanese, realizing that there would be no real independence under Imperial Japan. However, there have ever since been strong emotional ties between Burma's leaders and a powerful Burmese lobby in Japan. As a result, Prime Minister Ne Win, a Japanese-trained military officer who seized power in 1962, maintained close relations with Japan despite a generally xenophobic outlook. Some $3.7 billion of Japanese overseas development aid (ODA) propped up his so-called Burmese Way to Socialism from 1978-88 — a disastrous and erratic set of policies that kept Burma isolated, poor and backward.

Takeshi Kudo, a Burma expert at the Tokyo-based Institute of Developing Economies, says that Japan's blank-check approach to ODA during this period was ineffective, as virtually all the projects were failures and many of the loans went to state-owned enterprises that have gone belly-up.

In Kudo's view, China is now pursuing the same misguided approach to economic assistance in Burma — and it is likely that the Burmese government will again squander vast sums of money and only add to its debts.

Kudo says, "No monitoring is a recipe for disaster."

In response to SLORC's military coup in 1988, Japan suspended its ODA, partially due to U.S. pressure, but also because of growing Japanese concerns about human-rights abuses. Then, in 1992, Tokyo adopted an ODA Charter espousing human rights and democracy, and that was first invoked to cut ODA to Burma. Since that time, Japanese ODA has been limited largely to humanitarian and technical assistance, and there have been no new loans. Between 1996 and 2005, Japanese aid slumped to $36.7 million a year, compared with $154.8 million a year during the period 1978-88.

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Monks receive alms in Mrauk U, Rakhine (top); a slingshot-armed policeman at a Yangon station (above); and Mandalay's Moustache Brothers comedians Lu Maw and Par Par Lay (below) following the latter's release after being arrested for joking about the junta. LEWIS NORMAN PHOTOS
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Tokyo's relations with Yangon have grown even frostier since 2006, when Japan supported efforts to place Burma on the U.N. Security Council's agenda, ensuring that the junta would be subject to unwanted international scrutiny.

According to Professor Kei Nemoto of Sophia University in Tokyo, the powerful Japanese employers' association Keidanren is no longer interested in developing economic ties with Burma, citing erratic policymaking and the absence of the rule of law.

In Burma, China has eclipsed Japan. Since 1997, the autocratic Beijing regime has become the leading provider of loans and arms, and a major trading partner. Unsurprisingly, it has not tried to use its leverage to nudge the government to embrace reforms.

This dramatic turnabout from Japan being Burma's closest partner with considerable influence, to estrangement and little influence, puts into perspective Tokyo's meek response to Nagai's slaying.

In the end, Japan merely canceled a $4.7-million manpower-training initiative. Kudo says that the Burmese government was never eager for the project to go forward anyway, because it was opposed to an autonomous training center that would disseminate international knowledge and skills outside its control.

However, Japan still faces a dilemma shared by the international community: How to promote a democratic transition in Burma and alleviate the suffering of the people?

Kudo opposes sanctions, arguing that they hurt ordinary Burmese more than the junta, and do not promote desired reforms. Nemoto supports sanctions, arguing that without pressure there will be no reform.

Nemoto says, "Japan should suspend all ODA immediately and review its humanitarian aid programs. Canceling the manpower project is no improvement at all. It is better to outsource all (Japanese) humanitarian aid projects to international agencies and NGOs."

He also advocates an international effort led by China, India and Russia to reconstruct Burma's health-care system. He believes donors should work with the Burmese government to reconsider priorities that he estimates allocate some 60 percent of the national budget to military-related spending.

According to Nemoto, "If they take 1 percent of the current defense budget and allocate it to health care, they can manage on their own without additional international funding."

Given Burma's more than $2 billion in liquid natural gas export revenues in 2007, he believes it could do much more on its own if it were encouraged to do so.

The Japanese government is divided over how the handle the crisis in Burma. One former ambassador explains that there are some in the Foreign Ministry who favor a "realist" approach based on geostrategic interests. In their view, Japan has "lost" Burma to China by naively emphasizing human rights and democratization. Given Burma's strategic position and valuable natural resources, realists argue that Japan's greatest interest is in stability and the status quo rather than promoting regime change and democracy.

Realists also believe that cultivating good relations with the SPDC makes sense. Yoichi Yamaguchi, Japan's ambassador to Burma from 1995 until 1998, is a prominent supporter of the junta. Following last September's so-called Saffron Revolution, he staked out an unpopular position by defending the government's actions.

On Oct. 12, 2007, on national television, he repeated SPDC claims that many of the marching Buddhist monks were actually hired hooligans who engaged in violence, provoking a response by the security forces. He complained that the international media was sensationalizing the crackdown and unfairly blackening the SPDC's reputation.

Relying on the Burmese government's version of events, Yamaguchi also suggested that the Burmese government had acted according to the law. In fact, he said that the only major mistake by the government was the colossal waste of money involved in building a new capital in Naypitaw. Then, on Nov. 23 at the Foreign Correspondents' Club in Japan, following a trip to Burma, Yamaguchi took great pains to defend the Burmese government's explanation that Nagai's shooting was accidental, while criticizing the media for irresponsibly conveying inaccurate information critical of the government.

Surprisingly, in a complete turnabout from his TV appearance, he praised the new capital as a symbol of the government's commitment to democracy. He also distributed an article he had written in the progovernment newspaper, The New Light of Myanmar. There, he accused the NLD of hiring troublemakers to join the demonstrations, repeating government accusations that they had provoked the clashes. He went on to argue that Aung San Suu Kyi is unpopular with the people because she criticizes the government.

Nothing could better demonstrate how completely out of touch Yamaguchi is with popular sentiments in Burma, where Aung San Suu Kyi is the revered icon of the democracy movement.

While Senior General Than Shwe and the SPDC are widely reviled, the Lady, as she is known, commands popular admiration and carries the hopes of the nation.

Yet Ambassador Yamaguchi asks, "Isn't it a task the international community should undertake as the very first step to stop tarnishing the image of Myanmar by making Aung San Suu Kyi a leading actress and the government a villain?"

In terms of tarnishing the nation's image, one wonders what she has done that could remotely compare with killing and torturing monks.

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