When hundreds of protesters gathered outside Japan’s embassy in Yangon during the height of nationwide anti-coup protests in February, Ambassador Ichiro Maruyama emerged from the gates with a firm warning for the junta: Release the detained civilian leadership “immediately.”
The remarks, delivered in Burmese, drew applause from pro-democracy demonstrators hoping Japan would take concrete action to pressure Myanmar’s military, also known as the Tatmadaw. But since then Japan has resisted calls to impose sanctions or suspend ongoing infrastructure projects, saying only it would avoid carrying out any new non-humanitarian deals with the junta.
What’s more, some influential Japanese voices want to embrace the junta.
Yusuke Watanabe, secretary general of the influential Japan-Myanmar Association — a group stocked with top Japanese politicians and business leaders — wrote in an opinion piece last month that Tokyo “must position itself as a bridge between the Tatmadaw and the United States and other democratic countries rather than blindly aligning itself with the Western policy of regime change.” Watanabe, the son of a former cabinet minister, touted himself as “one of the few foreigners in constant contact” with coup leader Min Aung Hlaing.
Japan’s reluctance to put financial pressure on the military shows the difficulties President Joe Biden faces in convincing U.S. allies in Asia to put real teeth behind calls to defend democracy, a key theme he expressed last week at the Group of Seven summit and other stops in Europe.
For Japan and India in particular — two countries along with Australia that make up the U.S.-backed Quad grouping — tough measures against the junta only risk increasing the regional influence of China. They’ve also avoided joining Western democracies in sanctioning Chinese officials over alleged human-rights abuses in Xinjiang.