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Japan’s Misadventures in Burma

Originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal

January 6, 2015


Japan has big plans for Burma. Through its overseas development assistance arm, the Japan International Cooperation Agency, it hopes to jump-start investment and development projects in one of Asia’s poorest countries. Yet haste and irresponsibility have so far undermined Japan’s reputation as a friendly regional neighbor and have the potential to derail Burma’s fragile peace process while exacerbating human-rights concerns.

Take, for example, the Thilawa Special Economic Zone, 24 kilometers southeast from the commercial capital, Rangoon. Planned to be built on 2,400 hectares of farmland and to be operational by the end of 2015, the SEZ will include an industrial zone with factories, a port, and commercial and residential areas. It is a joint venture between the Burmese and Japanese governments, with Japan’s corporate heavyweights Marubeni, Mitsubishi and Sumitomo already invested. Also adding its backing is a consortium of nine Burmese companies headed by Dagon Win Aung —a man on the U.S. sanctions list.

Villagers have been forced to make way for the future SEZ, often through coercion by Burmese authorities. Around 300 people have already been relocated and thousands more will have to move during future phases of the project in return for inadequate compensation, poor quality housing, reduced livelihood opportunities and worsening access to essential services such as education, clean water and sanitation. Locals have not been properly consulted, nor have they been able to meaningfully participate in any decision-making processes regarding their future. A recent report by the New York-based human rights organization Physicians for Human Rights revealed some stark statistics: Of those families already relocated, 78% reported a loss of income, while nearly half have already left the relocation site.

Yet Japan and the JICA are not stopping at Thilawa. They already have plans for a whole area of southeast Burma that includes large parts of Karen and Mon States, home to what is often considered the world’s longest-running civil war, between the Burmese army and the Karen, an ethnic group that has been fighting for equality and self-determination for more than 60 years. Though the two sides have agreed to a cease-fire, they have yet to begin peace talks of substance. Resources remain heatedly contested. A huge influx of money at this time, in partnership with what many in this area perceive as an oppressive Burmese government, would be deeply irresponsible.

At a press conference last year, local Karen communities and civil-society organizations vehemently rejected the JICA’s plans. Yet the JICA continues to ignore this protracted and complex conflict and deems industrial development, infrastructure and industrial agriculture as the region’s future. It further envisions the approximately 130,000 refugees displaced by the conflict as the manpower that will fill factories, primarily planned for parts of Karen State.

But Japan’s Burmese misstep doesn’t stop at irresponsible investment. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ’s government has set up a committee to revise the rules governing Japan’s Overseas Development Assistance charter, shifting away from traditional development aid and toward maintaining peace and security in the region, thus putting indirect overseas military assistance on the table. Under the new charter, the Burmese army would potentially receive loans for nonmilitary activities such as public welfare and disaster relief. In an economic environment as opaque and corrupt as Burma’s, such loans will be almost impossible to track.

The implications of this charter revision are worrisome. Will Japan finance the building of Burmese army barracks in conflict zones? Will it sponsor the military personnel needed to clear people off their ancestral homes, all in the name of infrastructure development? Will it fund the Burmese navy, which routinely facilitates the trafficking of the Rohingya, a group fleeing from religious persecution by boarding rickety boats to cross the Bay of Bengal? Because as of now, the JICA and the Japanese government have so far ignored the Burmese government’s violations of human rights in order to curry political favor and enhance investment opportunities.

To be fair, Japan, like the U.S., is playing a geopolitical game with Burma in an attempt to curtail China’s influence in Asia. Yet the forward march of economic development must be balanced with the rights of local communities. Otherwise, pressing issues in Burma’s reform process will be aggravated rather than solved.

Japan is not finding this balance. A start would be for the JICA to listen to the villagers of Thilawa and rectify the mistakes of its first major Burmese project. This would set a precedent, not just for a sustainable business environment, but also for the rights of the long-downtrodden people of Burma.

Messrs. Fujimatsu and Moodie are political and human-rights analysts with Burma Partnership.

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