November 2, 2016 12:43 am JST

Myanmar's leader tackles an 'uneasy relationship'

GWEN ROBINSON, Chief editor, Nikkei Asian Review

Aung San Suu Kyi, center, arrives at Haneda airport in Tokyo on Nov. 1 for a five-day visit to Japan. (Photo by Rie Ishii)

YANGON -- Aung San Suu Kyi's five-day visit to Japan from Nov. 1 highlights a long and uneasy relationship between Myanmar's new de facto leader and the conservative Liberal Democratic Party that governed Japan for most of the 15-plus years she spent under house arrest in Yangon and since her release in 2010.

In her evolution from activist to politician and now, self-styled stateswoman, Suu Kyi has learned to keep the personal strictly separate from the professional. Even today she maintains some old friendships in Japan and a personal regard for Japanese culture acquired during her stint in the mid-1980s as a researcher at Kyoto University.

But there has been a striking lack of warmth and goodwill in her official attitude to engaging with Japan -- widely noted in Myanmar's rapidly growing diplomatic and business community. Over years of detention in Yangon, and her pro-sanctions activism as leader of the National League for Democracy, she made clear her distaste for Japan's "business as usual" approach to the military government and Tokyo's refusal to impose sanctions.

A distinct tone of that earlier coolness toward Tokyo carried over to her rise as the country's de facto leader. Since her NLD won a landslide victory in elections nearly one year ago, Japanese diplomats and business leaders have worked overtime to persuade her to meet visiting dignitaries from Tokyo, and Japanese media have found themselves completely in the cold - even more than those from other major countries.

But reflecting Suu Kyi's increasingly pragmatic approach to both international relations and domestic affairs, this visit to Japan will be in stark contrast to her last visit, as then opposition leader, in April 2013.

In that visit, she reinforced her rather stiff official relationship with Japan and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and created some embarrassment for her hosts by highlighting the relatively weak status of women in Japanese society. During a lecture at Kyoto University, she pointed to the comparatively low level of women lawmakers in Japan's parliament, saying it was even lower than the small fraction of women among Myanmar's 664 lawmakers. "I have to say, gender discrimination [in Myanmar] is not as great as it is in this country [Japan]," she noted.

Now she is back -- ironically as de facto head of a mostly handpicked cabinet that lacks even one woman minister, apart from herself. 

Myanmar's 'Japan agenda'

As Myanmar's state counsellor -- a role akin to a prime minister in a semi-presidential system -- Suu Kyi has several reasons for her Japan visit. First is her push to consolidate what she sees as her new, "non-aligned" foreign policy, which seeks to balance the interests of powerful neighbors such as China with those of the U.S. and also of regional neighbors. At the same time, she is sending clear messages through her choice of destinations and timings.

Japan, much to Tokyo's chagrin, is way down the pecking order. Her first overseas trip after her administration took power at the end of March was to attend an Association of Southeast Asian Nations ministerial meeting in neighboring Laos in May, as her country's foreign minister. Then came visits to Thailand, China, India, Britain and the U.S.

But it is China, the giant on Myanmar's doorstep, that has seen a pronounced warming of relations after a period of distancing under former President Thein Sein, whose priority was to convince Washington to ease sanctions against his country. Suu Kyi mounted a charm offensive in her August visit to China, where the ruling communist party's leadership received her as head of state and signed a variety of bilateral agreements.

The underlying significance, according to experts, is that Suu Kyi's geostrategic "rebalancing" is fueling an intensifying contest for political and commercial influence in Myanmar, first between China and Japan, and then with the U.S., as the effect of Washington's September decision to end all sanctions kicks in over coming years.

Suu Kyi's second message is to push her government's robust drive for foreign investment and economic assistance -- an easy campaign that Japan both understands and expects. Over the last several years, Japanese companies have streamed into Myanmar, with investments in everything from construction of the Thilawa Special Economic Zone near Yangon -- which now hosts more than 25 companies with Japanese investment of a total 68 as of September, according to SEZ authorities -- to power plants, factories and even a majority stake in Myanmar Brewery, the country's largest beer maker.

On bilateral assistance, Japan has already funneled billions of dollars of aid, concessional loans and other forms of assistance to Myanmar since the reformist administration of President Thein Sein took power in 2011. First, it cancelled outright in two stages a total of about $3.8 billion of debt owed by Myanmar and helped clear arrears to international financial institutions and provided bridge financing in 2012 to tackle the country's $9.6 billion debt overhang.

In 2015 alone, Japan agreed to new loans for Myanmar totaling about $1 billion and, in early 2016, announced that the new international airport -- worth $1.5 billion -- would be 49% financed by Japan. In Abe's most recent meeting with Suu Kyi, amid ASEAN-related summits in Laos in September, he announced 125 billion yen ($1.19 billion) in official development assistance as well as further support for public-private investment in infrastructure and other projects.

For Japan, the signal is clear. Despite being the biggest provider of assistance to Myanmar in recent years, and despite Tokyo's intense lobbying campaign for access and projects, Japan has been put in its place -- receiving a visit just ahead of South Korea, one of her next likely destinations.

"There is no 'inside track' for countries just because they give more bilateral assistance," noted a Myanmar government official in Naypyitaw in late October. "Japan, like other countries, will be expected to compete on a level playing field for commercial contracts and projects -- although of course we continue to welcome, and to need, aid and loans."

On this trip, Suu Kyi's message to Japan will be the same general line as the one delivered to the U.S. and others: that Myanmar is "open for business" and that responsible investment that yields jobs and revenues for the country will be welcome.

The third, and most interesting message, will only become clear after the state counsellor's talks with Abe and other leaders. That will focus on Japan's anxiety to engage on the political and security front -- particularly in the country's fraught peace process between the government, military and ethnic armed group. On the peace talks and in its burgeoning military relationship with Myanmar, Japan has been relatively skillful, using the nonprofit Nippon Foundation, formerly known as the Sasakawa Foundation, to engage in and channel hundreds of thousands of dollars into the peace process, and into building contacts with Myanmar's military.

The result has been a seat for Japan among international observers at key rounds of Myanmar's peace talks, a steady stream of military visits between the two countries and a growing training and education program for Myanmar military officers.

The next step, according to Myanmar and Japanese officials involved in military exchanges, could be the sale of training equipment such as training aircraft to Myanmar.

How both sides deal with these issues could set a new and more positive tone in bilateral relations. But in a rapidly evolving Myanmar, it will not be easy for Japan to buy or lobby its way in, warn long-time observers. "Clearly Japan was desperate for this visit. The Japanese government and business community have been keen to improve what they see as sometimes tense relations with Suu Kyi and the NLD - and that was due to Tokyo's warm relations with the Thein Sein administration, and cordial ties with the previous military junta," said a Singapore-based consultant who works with Japanese and other foreign companies in Myanmar.

"With this visit, Suu Kyi is signaling that she realizes she needs Japan on board -- but she is also broadcasting that it has to compete others."

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