This book examines Japan’s relationship with Myanmar from the passage of its constitution in May 2008 to the February 2021 coup d’état that finished its transition to a ‘disciplined democracy.’
It explores the nexus between security and political economy in the context of changing regional dynamics characterized by ‘Great Power’ competition and cooperation. Focusing on the impact of Japan’s relations with Myanmar on people in Myanmar and beyond, the author argues that the Japanese government and businesses side lined ‘universal values’ for profit at the expense of human security.
This text develops a unique Area Studies approach that critiques how Japan’s foreign policy elites perceive Japan’s role in the liberal international order.
Chapter 2 challenges the literature that has designated Japan as ‘Asia’s liberal leader’. This literature emphasizes Japan’s contribution to trade deals and side-lines both the Japanese government’s supposed commitment to a ‘value-based diplomacy’ and the historical context of Japan’s engagement with the East Asian region. The chapter sketches these historical developments to demonstrate how the end of the Cold War culminated in critiques of Japan’s contribution to the liberal international order requiring a rethink of Japan’s international security and developmental policies. By the early 21st century, the concept of human security had achieved a prominent place in Japan’s foreign policy lexicon, denoting a human-centric approach to Japan’s international security and developmental contributions. It is upon this discursive foundation that Japanese foreign policy makers have developed their interpretation of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific and contemporary regional vision as ‘Asia’s liberal leader’. The chapter concludes by examining the inconsistencies and contradictions inherent to the discourse of Japan as ‘Asia’s liberal leader’, setting up the focus of the remaining chapters which unpacks this discourse in the context of contemporary Japan–Myanmar relations.
Chapter 5 examines the Abe administration’s attempts to act as a peacemaker in Myanmar’s multiple and persistent ethnic conflicts. Intent on countering Chinese influences in Myanmar’s border regions, the Japanese government provided aid and turned to the Nippon Foundation to act as a mediator between the Myanmar government and the various ethnic groups. The Japanese government’s approach masked an economic rationale predicated on the construction of economic corridors through the Mekong subregion. Japan’s state-centric approach favoured Myanmar’s military government at the expense of ethnic minorities. As Myanmar democratized, so refugees were encouraged to return to a precarious existence in Myanmar’s borderlands. At the same time, infrastructure developments allowed the Myanmar military better access to areas of ethnic conflict, transforming the contours of the conflicts themselves.
Chapter 1 addresses the core theoretical concerns that lie at the intersection between Area Studies and International Relations (IR). Though Area Studies began as a key component of imperialist efforts to remake the non-Western world in the image of the West and then to inform neoliberalist and neoimperialist projects during the Cold War, the field has since evolved to comprehend global politics differently from IR. By questioning how actors discursively constitute areas for specific ends, Area Studies rejects the ontological basis of IR that is grounded in a state-centric approach. A revitalized Area Studies can make important contributions to both global politics and policy-making communities, including: a focus on the grassroots; providing critical insights into complex societies and histories; an appreciation for the transmission of ideas through global networks; a concern with the impacts of globalization; the discursive construction of foreign policies; and an appreciation of area knowledge and philosophy. Collectively, these contributions encourage a re-evaluation of Japan–Myanmar relations that challenges existing accounts in the IR literature.
The human cost of economic development is the subject of Chapter 4. The primary incentive of both the Japanese government and businesses in encouraging Myanmar’s democratization process was to exploit the human and natural resources of the country and construct economic corridors across the Mekong region to facilitate trade. The Japanese government’s support for Japanese business ventures in Myanmar was encapsulated in its sponsoring, through the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), of the Thilawa Special Economic Zone (SEZ). Though the Thilawa SEZ should have been developed in accordance with JICA’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) guidelines, the land of the Thilawa residents was coercively appropriated, the residents were inadequately compensated and moved to an inappropriate relocation site where the quality of housing was poor and the conditions for life were unsanitary. Japan’s support for the construction of the Dawei SEZ witnessed similar land grabs at the expense of the local population. The Thilawa and Dawei cases highlight a major discrepancy between Japanese policy makers’ rhetorical commitment to human security and the reality of neoliberal imperatives in Myanmar.
Chapter 6 details Japan’s response to the plight of the Rohingya people in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. Since Myanmar’s democratization process began, the Rohingya were subject to increasing acts of violence and depredation at the hands of Myanmar’s military forces, culminating in an exodus of Rohingya refugees to neighbouring Bangladesh. Assessing the violence levelled against the Rohingya, the UN condemned the Myanmar military and Aung San Suu Kyi’s government for perpetrating crimes against humanity. Despite this, the Japanese government continued to work with the Myanmar authorities in pursuit of their economic aims and watched on as the refugee crisis unfolded. The ongoing Rohingya refugee crisis exemplifies how hollow Japan’s ‘value diplomacy’ rhetoric has been. This case raises important questions about who Japanese policy makers deem to be human; how lines are drawn between ‘insurable’ people in the developed world and those excluded, ‘uninsurable’ people of the developing and underdeveloped worlds.
The Introduction sets out the foundations of the Japanese government’s engagement with Myanmar’s democratization process from the passage of Myanmar’s constitution in May 2008 to the 1 February 2021 coup d’état that brought an end to Myanmar’s democratic transition. It places the Japan–Myanmar relationship in historical context to understand how this relationship evolved and what Japan’s contemporary commitments to and ambitions in Myanmar are. In particular, Japan’s support for Myanmar’s transition to a ‘disciplined democracy’ is based not only on its economic objectives and efforts to counter China’s influence in the country, but also an aspiration to be accepted as ‘Asia’s liberal leader’. The Introduction reviews the extant literature on Japan–Myanmar relations to situate the book’s contribution to the literature, before detailing the structure of the book.
The Conclusion details Japan’s response to the 1 February 2021 coup in Myanmar in light of its decade-long support for Myanmar’s transition to a ‘disciplined democracy’. Myanmar’s military overthrew Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratically elected government and brutally suppressed supporters who took to the streets in protest. Still eager to be seen as a ‘bridge’ between Myanmar and the international community, the Japanese government emphasized its ability to steer Myanmar’s military leaders back to the path of democratization. The Japanese government’s futile efforts at mediation marked an end to the illiberal tragedy of Japan’s engagement with Myanmar’s transition to a ‘disciplined democracy’. The chapter ends by detailing the discursive foundations of Japan’s policy towards Myanmar and the inherent contradictions and exclusions within this discourse. Reflecting on Japan’s foreign policy discourse opens up alternative courses of action. Nonetheless, the Conclusion remains pessimistic that a brighter and more prosperous future awaits Myanmar’s people.
Chapter 3 explores the construction of Japanese foreign policy narratives concerning the evolving democratization process in Myanmar. The chapter argues that Japanese policy makers have consistently sought to distinguish their relations with Myanmar from other states in the international community by depicting Japan’s relationship with Myanmar in terms of bridging (kakehashi). The notion of Japan acting in this kakehashi role can be observed in the statements of various policy makers who imagine the Japanese state as a go-between the international community and Myanmar, seeking to entice Myanmar into the liberal international order through ‘positive linkage’, namely Japan’s offer of Official Development Assistance to the Myanmar government in return for steps towards democratization, such as the freeing of political prisoners. By democratizing, these Japanese policy makers argued, Myanmar could shed its ‘pariah’ status, enabling the West to lower economic sanctions and recognize it as a legitimate member of the international community. This chapter traces Japan’s responses to the evolution of Myanmar’s democracy in the post-Cold War period with a particular emphasis on events after the Saffron Revolution and Cyclone Nargis through to the election of the National League for Democracy in the November 2015 general election.