Japan offers aid and rights reminder to Mekong nations

Jan 17, 2008 (AFP), Japan on Wednesday offered fresh aid to Mekong River nations while issuing a gentle reminder on human rights as it sought to counter China’s growing influence in the region.

The foreign minister of Burma, which faced heavy international criticism for its crackdown on pro-democracy protests last year, joined his counterparts from Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam for their first joint talks with Japan.

"Japan has been attaching great importance to the Mekong region, and will make further efforts to realise latent growth potential in the region," Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda told the foreign ministers in a meeting.

"At the same time, we would like to encourage each country to use its wisdom in terms of human rights and democratisation," Fukuda said, to which Nyan Win, the foreign minister of Burma, nodded, taking notes.

The ministers signed a series of deals late Wednesday, including one worth 20 million dollars aimed at encouraging investment and developing infrastructure in the poorest parts of the region.

The aid deals include funding for infrastructure such as highways stretching across the region, officials said. Japan also signed a deal with Laos to encourage investment in the country.

Tokyo, which has had uneasy ties with China and South Korea dating back to Japan’s past invasions, has long treated Southeast Asia as a key region of influence by lavishing development aid and trade deals.

But more recently "the presence of China — and also South Korea — in this region is very big," said a Japanese official who handles Southeast Asian matters.

"China has borders with all these countries except for Cambodia, and excluding Thailand, the trade volumes with China are bigger than the trade volumes with Japan for these countries," he said on condition of anonymity.

Complicating the meeting is the issue of Burma, which counts on China as its main ally.

Japan has refused Western calls to end aid to military-ruled Burma, and this week pledged 1.79 million dollars to improve public health there.

In October, Japan cancelled nearly five million dollars in aid in protest at the military’s bloody crackdown on rallies, in which a Japanese journalist was killed.

Scot Marciel, the US deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia, called Tuesday on a visit to Tokyo for all nations, including Japan and China, to send a united message to Burma’s junta leaders that they are heading in the "wrong direction."

Human Rights Watch also wrote to Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura urging Japan to address human rights concerns in Southeast Asian countries, saying Tokyo’s concerns should extend beyond Burma.

"Governments chronically restrict freedom of expression, widely discriminate against ethnic minorities, pillage natural resources at the expense of local populations and provide impunity for those responsible for abuses," said Brad Adams, executive director of the rights group’s Asia division.

"Given your government’s relationship with each of the Mekong countries, and as a leading democratic power, we believe Japan can and should bring about significant improvements by speaking out clearly and publicly on human rights abuses," Adams said.

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