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Interview

Myanmar junta efforts to restore calm 'unworkable': ex-Japan envoy

More crackdowns and detentions on horizon as crisis goes from 'bad to worse'

Then-Japanese Ambassador to Myanmar Tateshi Higuchi, left, meets with Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing in October 2017, in Naypyidaw, the capital of Myanmar.

TOKYO -- Myanmar has fallen deeper into turmoil since the military staged a coup on Feb. 1. Brutal crackdowns on anti-government protesters have claimed more than 700 lives so far.

In a recent interview, Nikkei asked Tateshi Higuchi, Japanese ambassador to Myanmar in 2014-2018 and former superintendent general of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department, about where the Southeast Asian country is likely headed and how Japan should deal with it.

"The situation is going from bad to worse and shows few signs of getting better. Decisions must now be based on this [dire] assumption," said Higuchi, who had frequent meetings with Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy, which was the country's ruling party before being overthrown. He also knows Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, commander of the national military.

Edited excerpts from the interview follow:

What are behind the military's escalating brutality against its citizens?

The military genuinely believes they are doing the right thing and know of no other way but to crush [the protests] with force. It seems they are becoming more militant as their countermeasures -- modeled after those taken in Thailand after the 2014 coup -- have proved unworkable. Even when the military quashed pro-democracy movements in 1988, foreigners were untouched. This time, however, the military has crossed the line. For example, an Australian who cooperated with the NLD-led government was detained, while gunshots were fired at the American Center.

During my tenure as ambassador, I met Senior General Min Aung Hlaing nearly 20 times, including in private. Though I felt he was politically ambitious, I thought he was sensible and trustworthy when we talked about the Rohingya crisis, as he explained the military's position in detail by showing photos of what was happening in the area. But the current situation clearly shows that neither he nor the military has the leadership qualities to rule the country. I am embarrassed that I couldn't read his nature.

During his tenure as ambassador to Myanmar, Higuchi met frequently with Aung San Suu Kyi and Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing.

How do you expect the situation to develop?

Unfortunately, I see no bright prospects. The military could eventually stamp out the protests by intimidating citizens through more bloody crackdowns as well as massive incarcerations. It would then introduce economic measures and announce a schedule for a general election.

The junta may be calculating that once a government that includes members of the military is elected, the U.S., Europe and Japan will have to recognize Myanmar as a democracy to some extent. To win the election, they will undoubtedly exclude Suu Kyi and outlaw her NLD. To this end, they may be willing to endure greater international condemnation for not making any meaningful concessions while counting on neighboring countries and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to be somewhat conciliatory.

It seems unlikely that the situation will subside even if a general election is announced.

Counting on the international community to recognize [a "democratic government" associated with the military] is not an expected outcome, but it is a hope the military clings to.

Another possible scenario is a near-total breakdown resulting from unworkable national governance. If civil resistance continues to rise, the 400,000-strong military and 70,000-strong police force will be unable to manage the situation. Citizens who have breathed the air of democracy over the past decade will probably refuse to accept military rule no matter what happens to them. Furthermore, as armed ethnic groups in border areas start to confront the military, clashes may occur with more frequency.

If the military's loyalty to their commander-in-chief weakens because of an absolute stalemate, he may change his approach or step down. Even a coup within the military could occur. The worst possible scenario is that Myanmar closes itself from the rest of the world similar to previous periods of military rule.

What should Japan do?

As a first step, Japan should drop its optimism and illusory assumptions. It needs to specifically -- rather than generally -- recognize the insular nature of the military and clearly assess the situation on the ground in order to anticipate change. Countermeasures must then be formulated based on this type of analysis.

Of course, Japan should consider the human rights of people in Myanmar in its dealings with the country, whose citizens have shown a great deal of trust in Japan. As its top priority, the [Japanese] government should think of how it can save lives and what it can do to alleviate suffering. Then it should protect its own national interests.

What are Japan's national interests?

Myanmar is called "Asia's last frontier." More than 400 Japanese companies are operating there. The Japanese government has encouraged their activities in Myanmar, for which I feel responsible. As a result of the current situation, Myanmar has become risky for companies doing business there, as a coup can occur at any time. At stake is how to protect companies exposed to such difficulties.

The current situation no longer enables businesses to operate effectively. While it is up to each company to decide how to react, the government and the embassy should do their best to help evacuate them should the need arise. Recognizing the situation and planning for a worst-case scenario should be prioritized.

Rethinking official development assistance is also unavoidable. Loans accumulated since 2011 have reached 1 trillion yen ($9.11 billion). While new loans can be frozen, we need to decide how to deal with current loans and how to collect money owed. This is a potentially thorny problem, but one that begs for a fundamental review of the loan program now that preconditions for monetary assistance have changed. We also have to reexamine other issues, including defense exchanges and how to ensure the safety of 1,600 Japanese citizens remaining in the country, including their possible return to Japan.

The Japanese government has its own connections with the military. Can Japan use them to mediate the crisis?

At present, I think Japan does not factor into Myanmar's survival plan. The military may consider any meeting proposed by Japan as diplomatic posturing and would be unlikely to honestly engage. And such a proposal could also anger them. But if the military is driven into a corner as a result of the country falling into bankruptcy, Japan may be able to help. To this end, Japan should work with the U.S. and impose sanctions on Myanmar.

There are concerns that a tough stance will push Myanmar to the Chinese. What do you think?

The situation is not that simple. China likely regards the coup as troublesome and is upset. Many people in Myanmar think that China backs the military, fueling anti-Chinese sentiment and endangering Beijing's interests in Myanmar, such as oil and gas pipelines.

For China, nothing is more important than to secure and protect its interests in the country. Although China is ready to use any means for this, it should stay rational.

I think China will have to ask the military to stop killing citizens and create an environment in which the international community has to accept a general election planned by the military. China thus will likely encourage ASEAN -- itself a believer in non-intervention -- to fall in line. Beijing may also exercise its influence on armed rebels.

But one should remember that the military does not want to be in a situation in which China is the only option. Japan and the international community should act by keeping this point in mind.

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