Japan ‘to freeze aid’ unless Suu Kyi walks

Japan’s foreign minister Katsuya Okada has said that Tokyo will freeze aid to Burma unless the junta releases opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and allows her to participate in elections this year.

Okada said that “the current situation [in Burma] will not result in receiving [fully-fledged economic assistance from Japan]”, according to Kyodo News. The junta’s refusal to allow Suu Kyi a platform in the elections has drawn widespread international condemnation.

He also crucially backed calls for the powerful Group of Eight (G8) industrialised nations to add Burma’s political situation and human rights abuses by the military government to its agenda for upcoming talks in Toronto in June.

Okada conveyed these sentiments to Burma’s ambassador to Japan, U Hla Myint, on 25 March before speaking to a press conference.

Kanae Doi, Tokyo director at Human Rights Watch, who had also called on the G8 to discuss Burma, welcomed Okada’s stance. “[He] is committed to making the upcoming elections free and fair. It’s very important now that foreign minister Okada reaches out to ASEAN countries, which he said he would do at the press briefing on Friday”.

The 10-member ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) bloc, which includes Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as Burma, has been criticised for its soft approach to the ruling junta and has resisted calls to expel Burma from the grouping.

Japan has been one of the biggest aid-giving nations to the whole Southeast Asia region, including Burma, but the election to office in 2009 of the left-leaning Democratic Party of Japan raised questions as to how strong Japanese support of the military government would remain.

This is not the first time that Japan has used its donor clout to attempt to pressure the junta. Following the shooting by Burmese military in September 2007 of Japanese photojournalist, Kenji Nagai, Japan cancelled a grant to the military government. It also made similar threats in November last year in the wake of Suu Kyi’s renewed house arrest.

Tokyo has had an ambiguous relationship with the junta, as civil society and business interests have pulled successive Japanese governments in opposing directions.

Doi added that “there are many diplomats who fear that the Chinese influence in Burma is going to hamper the influence of Japan. Therefore Japan needs to maintain or increase their influence with the [junta]; this sort of position is very counterproductive to promoting rights in Burma”.

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