Japan, Relations with

   Before World War II, Japan had rather small-scale trade and cultural relations with Burma. On the eve of the war, such prominent politicians as U Saw and Ba Maw cultivated friendly ties with Japanese diplomats and undercover agents as a means of gaining external support for the struggle against British colonialism, and the Minami Kikan gave military training to the Thirty Comrades led by Aung San in 1941; Colonel Suzuki Keiji established the Burma Independence Army as Burma's first postcolonial armed force in December of that year. The Japanese occupation from 1942 to 1945 transformed the country. The land was devastated in some of the largest land battles of the war; relations between the Burmans and the ethnic minorities, especially the Karens, became hostile because the latter remained largely loyal to the British; and the armed forces became a permanent fixture in postwar Burmese politics. As former Prime Minister Khin Nyunt once said, "[O]ur Tatmadaw was made in Japan." The occupation also gave Aung San and other nationalists the opportunity to organize in both a political and military way to successfully oppose reestablishment of a postwar British colonial regime. In that sense, Japan contributed significantly to Burma's independence in 1948, although Japanese rule, including the depredations of the Kempeitai (military police) and the death of as many as 50,000 Burmese laborers (romusha) on the Thai-Burma Railway, left many bitter memories.
   After 1954, when the Union of Burma and Japan signed a treaty normalizing diplomatic relations, Japan's influence in the country was economic rather than military. Between that year and 1988, it was the country's largest donor of foreign aid, initially in the form of war reparations, totaling US$390 million. By the mid-1980s, Tokyo was disbursing hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars in aid annually, mostly in the form of concessional loans, for such projects as airport modernization, industrialization, infrastructure, electric power generation, and hospital construction. Major Japanese general trading companies (so-go- sho-sha), such as Mitsubishi Shoji and Mitsui Bussan, maintained offices in Rangoon (Yangon), not only to procure goods for official development assistance contracts awarded by the Japanese government, but also in the hope that the socialist economy of this resource-rich country would be liberalized. But when the socialist system was scrapped after the State Law and Order Restoration Council seized power in September 1988, bilateral relations entered a new and uncertain period.
   The Japanese government froze its aid allocations for political, human rights, and financial reasons in late 1988, although it formally recognized the SLORC regime in February of the following year and allowed the resumption of some aid projects. Pressured by its major ally, the United States, Japan was reluctant to undertake full-scale economic engagement (that is, new large-scale aid), especially after the SLORC's house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi in 1989 and its refusal to transfer power after the General Election of May 27, 1990 aroused strong criticism from Washington and other Western governments. However, Japan did not enact sanctions against the regime, refraining from funding new aid projects but allowing old ones to continue on a case-by-case basis. After 1988, Tokyo also forgave much of Burma's yen-denominated debt through debt-relief grants. Inside Japan, many critics saw their government's Burma policy as ambiguous and opportunistic, but foreign ministry spokesmen claimed that although Japan and the United States shared the same goal, Burma's democratization, the means were different, that is, Japan was pursuing a "sunshine policy" rather than sanctions and harsh criticism. However, Japan's Burma policy was frequently difficult to decipher; for example, funds for modernization of Rangoon's Mingaladon Airport were disbursed under the inappropriate and confusing category "humanitarian aid" in the late 1990s. China has gained influence in the country at Japan's expense since 1988. Presently, Japanese leaders emphasize the importance of deepening ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as a way of counteracting Beijing's growing influence in Southeast Asia as a whole; since Burma joined ASEAN in 1997, Tokyo's Burma policy has taken a regional, ASEAN perspective (for example, Khin Nyunt was invited to attend the Japan-ASEAN Summit in Tokyo in 2003 in his capacity as prime minister). With its rich natural resources, the country remains important to Japan's economic strategies.
   Japanese often claim that Burma is the "friendliest country in Asia toward Japan" because of wartime experiences, a common religion (Buddhism), and shared values. Takeyama Michio's novel, Harp of Burma, a perennial best seller, is a sentimental story about Japanese soldiers' wartime sacrifices, and war veterans have visited the country regularly to collect the remains and pray over the graves of their fallen comrades. Aung San Suu Kyi studied at Kyoto University during the mid-1980s. Since 1988, 10,000 Burmese exiles, many of whom are active in the prodemocracy movement with the support of sympathetic Japanese citizens, have established residence in Japan.
   See also Japanese Occupation: Tatmadaw, History of; World War II in Burma (Military Operations).

Historical Dictionary of Burma (Myanmar). . 2014.

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