Japan Cautious on Myanmar Sanctions

Courtesy of the Japan External Trade Organization
This photo taken in 2019 shows the Thilawa Special Economic Zone in the suburbs of Yangon, where many Japanese companies have established operations.

Myanmar’s military coup has put Japan in a difficult position. While the Japanese government intends to encourage Myanmar to return to civilian rule through dialogue, the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden is ready to impose sanctions from a human rights perspective. Japan is carefully considering its response to avoid a rift with the newly-established U.S. administration.

“We need to communicate [with the Myanmar military] and then assess the situation.” Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said at a press conference Friday, responding to a question about the possibility of sanctions.

Japan has had ties with Myanmar’s military since the former administration under the military regime. When Motegi visited Myanmar in August last year, he met with State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi as well as Myanmar military Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing.

According to a senior official of the Foreign Ministry, “Japan is the only [developed] nation that can engage in dialogue with the military.”

The Japanese government is cautious about imposing sanctions on Myanmar partly because it fears Naypyitaw may become internationally isolated and lean toward Beijing again, with which it had close ties during the former military regime.

The possibility of sanctions restricting the activities of Japanese firms’ Myanmar units is also behind the government’s cautious approach.

According to the Japan External Trade Organization, 436 Japanese companies were operating in the country as of the end of January this year, about eight times more than in the end of March 2012, when there were 53.

The new Biden administration has taken a hard-line stance on human rights violations, such as recognizing the suppression of ethnic minorities in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region as “genocide.”

Japan has conveyed its concerns about the implementation of Myanmar sanctions to the U.S. administration, but a senior Japanese government official said, “If the situation does not improve, the United States will exert more pressure for sanctions.”

There have also been moves within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to press the government to strengthen its foreign policy on human rights.

A resolution calling on the government to consider suspending economic assistance to Myanmar was compiled Friday at a joint meeting of the LDP’s Foreign Affairs Division and other groups.