There was something unusual in the air on Wednesday when I was visiting some of my former colleagues at the Japanese Foreign Ministry. Moments later, I saw a group of hundreds, if not thousands, of demonstrators, mostly Myanmar expats in Japan, who were gathering and surrounding the ministry’s building.
Demonstrators were dressed in red and waving photos of Aung San Suu Kyi, chanting, “Free, free Aung San Suu Kyi! Free, free Myanmar!” The Myanmar people reportedly demanded the ministry use all its “political, diplomatic and economic power” to restore the civilian government in Myanmar.
It’s a pity that a state of emergency was declared this week in Myanmar, undermining the process of democratization. Although I’m fully sympathetic with the demonstrators, they were making demands against the wrong entity. Instead, the focus should be on the Tatmadaw, the notorious armed forces of Myanmar.
If the demonstrators wanted Japan to join the United States in imposing diplomatic or economic sanctions against Myanmar, they may not succeed because sanctions would not achieve the ultimate objective of restoring a democratically elected civilian government in Myanmar. Here are some additional observations:
Reactions from Japan and the G7
Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi issued a statement that expressed “grave concern over the situation in Myanmar,” urged “the release of those detained including Aung San Suu Kyi” and strongly urged “the Myanmar military to swiftly restore its democratic political system.”
The demonstrators should not doubt this consistent position of Japan. With that said, what we must change is not the Japanese government, but the mindset of the military leaders of the Tatmadaw. They did not start this coup on a whim. They must have been planning this move for months.
Japan and other G7 members issued a foreign ministers’ statement “condemning the coup in Myanmar.” The ministers “called upon the military to immediately end the state of emergency, restore power to the democratically-elected government, to release all those unjustly detained and to respect human rights and the rule of law.”
The G7 is united in demanding that Myanmar’s “Parliament should be convened at the earliest opportunity” and the member states “stand with the people of Myanmar who want to see a democratic future.” The demonstrators must know that Japan is part of the efforts of the international community to restore democracy in Myanmar.
Did the Tatmadaw make a mistake? Probably, and many Myanmar hands wondered why. They agree that a coup was not only unnecessary but also counterproductive since the existing constitution provides the military with so many politically decisive advantages that the it could have easily controlled the situation even when the new Parliament convened on Feb. 1.
Aung San Suu Kyi vs. the junta
In retrospect, however, the landslide victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) in the general election last November was so significant and revolutionary that the Tatmadaw might have been worried that the NLD could eventually manage to amend the constitution and remove the military from politics.
Suu Kyi is hardly Myanmar’s Joan of Arc. One of the tragedies of Myanmar may have been the overestimation of Suu Kyi’s political skills. The West first praised her as a champion of Western-style democracy in Myanmar and later discredited her as a traitor on human rights who defended massacres of the Rohingya people.
In reality, however, she was neither a saint nor a traitor. Suu Kyi has been and will continue to be just another sibling of Myanmar’s nationalist elites. Nothing more and nothing less. By criticizing her for not being what we wanted her to be, the West might have given the Tatmadaw the political opportunity to oust her.
Should Japan talk to the Tatmadaw? Absolutely. The coup was no fluke. It was sort of a crime of conscience on the part of the military to defend their country by force. The Tatmadaw had been isolated from the international community for decades and that’s why Japan has tried to talk to and persuade the country since the 1960s.
It took a few decades to bear fruit in Myanmar. Although the process of democratization is slow and incomplete, the 2015 general election finally gave the NLD an absolute majority of seats in both chambers of the National Parliament. We should both pressure and persuade the Tatmadaw not to stop this process.
What Japan should do now
Are sanctions the best option? Unfortunately, no. Sanctions are part of the basket of possible policy options but hardly the best. Beijing must be holding its breath. Based on the past experience of Japan and the international community, a simple resumption of a “big stick” policy vis-a-vis Myanmar would only push the Tatmadaw back to the dark side.
But it’s not 2010 anymore. The world is witnessing a more powerful and influential China behind Myanmar. What is needed is a subtle and mature supervision of concerted efforts by the international community to resume talking to and eventually persuade the leaders of the Tatmadaw to change their mind.
The organizer of the Feb. 3 rally in Tokyo claimed that Japan should not recognize the newly-formed military regime. The real question, however, is not whether Japan recognizes the new government in Myanmar. What matters most is how Japan resumes its efforts of persuasion.
The demonstrators demanded that Japan do more to restore democracy in Myanmar. The Japanese government and people hear the voices of the people in Myanmar. That is why Japan must resume persuading, rather than pressuring, the Tatmadaw to face the reality of the 21st century.