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Myanmar Crisis

Japan set to halt new Myanmar assistance following coup

Tokyo faces international pressure as it balances junta ties with democratic ideals

Pro-democracy protesters fill the street in Mandalay on Feb. 25. (AP/Kyodo)

TOKYO -- Japan is considering halting new official development aid to Myanmar for the foreseeable future amid growing global outcry over the Feb. 1 military coup and subsequent deadly crackdown on protesters in the Southeast Asian country.

Negotiating and agreeing to new assistance would be too difficult for the Japanese government under the current circumstances, since such moves could appear to legitimize Myanmar's military junta that ousted de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

"Regarding economic assistance for Myanmar, we will carefully monitor the situation without prejudice and consider" steps to take, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told a news conference.

Japan will instead likely urge the junta to release Suu Kyi from custody, and to swiftly restore democratic rule in the country.

Japan has been actively assisting Myanmar's economic development since the country began its democratic transition in 2011. It provided 189.3 billion yen ($1.8 billion) in official development aid (ODA) to Myanmar in fiscal 2019, making it the largest donor to the country aside from China, which does not publish its numbers. About 168.8 billion yen came in the form of loans, with another 13.8 billion yen in grants and 6.6 billion yen in technical assistance.

Among the projects under consideration included a loan toward the construction of the new Hanthawaddy Airport near Yangon.

Bilateral dialogue with Myanmar regarding ongoing ODA projects, as well as humanitarian assistance through international organizations, will continue. "We will not take measures that would impact Myanmar's general public," a senior official from Japan's Foreign Ministry said.

Japan has historically maintained ties with Myanmar's military. Unlike the U.S. and Europe, it kept diplomatic ties with the junta that took power in 1988, and did not impose sanctions on Myanmar after Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest a year later.

Still, Japan did freeze new ODA to Myanmar as a general rule following the 1988 coup. While it resumed assistance tied to democratization efforts when Suu Kyi was released in 1995, it halted new projects once again when she was placed back under house arrest in 2003.

Japan has not imposed any official sanctions on Myanmar over the latest coup -- once again breaking from the U.S., which froze $1 billion in Myanmar government assets this month. Japan also tapped its military connections to contact the new junta ahead of major Western nations. It seeks to strike a balance between its democratic ideals and its ties to the Myanmar military, concerned that isolation from the global community could drive the junta into Chinese arms.

But Japan stands with the U.S. and Europe on their criticism against the coup, and co-signed two statements by Group of Seven foreign ministers denouncing the Myanmar military. It has also urged the junta to ease its crackdown against pro-democracy protests, though the situation remains volatile. Two were killed in Mandalay on Saturday after police shot into a group of protesters to disperse them, raising the known death toll at the hands of the security forces to four.

The U.S. has since announced new sanctions on Myanmar. Japan could face global pressure to cut off ties to its military should conditions in the country deteriorate.

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