YANGON -- The Japanese government announced in late December that it will launch an aid program to help internally displaced people in a conflict zone in Myanmar's northern state of Kachin to return home.
China has strong influence in northern Myanmar, including Kachin. Countrywide, Japan and China are tussling for diplomatic sway by helping with various infrastructure projects. Their rivalry is now spilling over into Myanmar's sensitive internal ethnic conflicts.
The Japanese program aims to assist people displaced by Kachin's decadeslong ethnic conflict, and is due to begin in the first half of 2020.
The Japanese government, together with the nonprofit Nippon Foundation, will contribute $5 million to help 3,000 people return to their villages who were forced to flee due to fighting between Myanmar troops and the rebel Kachin Independent Army.
The aid will be used to build 500 houses, latrines, and to provide agricultural training to raise farmers' incomes. The Japanese Embassy in Yangon posted a statement on its Facebook page saying it "hopes that this assistance will contribute to improving the humanitarian situation in Kachin State and reaching a cease-fire agreement as soon as possible."
Nippon Foundation Chairman Yohei Sasakawa is Japan's special envoy for national reconciliation in Myanmar. The Tokyo-based organization is funded by revenue from gambling on boat races in Japan. Among other charitable work, it offers assistance to areas overseas affected by conflict.
There has been ethnic strife in Kachin since the country then known as Burma gained independence from Britain in 1948. According to the United Nations, about 100,000 people from Kachin live in camps for displaced people.
The Japanese aid program will initially be limited to areas under the control of Myanmar's government, as there is no cease-fire in place between the military and the Kachin Independent Army.
But a source involved in the program told the Nikkei Asian Review: "We want to expand the targets of the project to include KIA-held areas as well, as peace negotiations progress."
Kachin is economically dependent on China, having exported farm products and mineral resources to it for decades. The KIA is also said to buy arms and raise cash from China to fund its struggle against the Myanmar army. It is a member of the Northern Alliance, a coalition of pro-China, ethnically-based armed groups led by the United Wa State Army, an offshoot of the Communist Party of Burma.
Beijing has been acting as an intermediary between ethnic minority groups, the government and the army in Myanmar's peace process. This benefits China, which wants an outlet to the Indian Ocean that circumvents the Strait of Malacca.
Since becoming Myanmar's de facto leader in 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi has surprised many experts by tilting in favor of China. This is due in part to its pull with the ethnic groups Suu Kyi must deal with to achieve peace.
The Japanese aid program comes in response to a request from the Kachin Baptist Convention, a respected local charity. It will break new ground for Japan by involving Tokyo in the region's fissile politics. More so than with financial support for education, vocational training and relief, assisting with refugee repatriation calls for careful mediation among mutually hostile stakeholders, including the government, the military and KIA officials.
The program is still being fleshed out, but Japan believes it can encourage the warring parties to sit down for conclusive peace talks by helping the refugees return home and showcasing the fruits of peace. Japan also hopes to send a message to the Myanmar government and militant groups that they do not have to accede to Beijing's wishes over Kachin.
In December 2018, the Myanmar military declared a unilateral cease-fire in the northern part of the country, including Kachin, which it had extended several times until September 2019. Even though the cease-fire has lapsed, the Japanese Embassy has expressed optimism about prospects for the region saying, "The situation is becoming stable in Northern Kachin State."
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in Beijing in December amid growing expectations among foreign policy experts that Sino-Japan relations will improve further.
Nevertheless Japan remains wary of Chinese influence in Myanmar, and its strategic contest with Beijing is evident in rival Chinese- and Japanese-funded urban development schemes in Yangon, and in infrastructure projects linking Yangon and Mandalay, Myamar's second-largest city.
The two are also vying to give Myanmar diplomatic cover. China recently voted against a U.N. General Assembly resolution condemning alleged atrocities against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, while Japan abstained.
In October, Japan invited Myanmar's commander-in-chief, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, for a visit, during which he met with Abe and several other senior Japanese officials. Min Aung Hlaing is barred from travel to the U.S. over his alleged role in the military's killing of Rohingya.