Japan’s biggest lobbyist backs Myanmar coup, calls for investment

A JapanThis former politician who campaigned to attract billions of dollars in investment from some of the JapanMyanmar’s largest companies urged Japan to endorse his military rule, saying the country’s coup leader has “grown fantastically as a human being”, while praising his “democratization efforts”.

Former 87-year-old minister Hideo Watanabe is also pursuing a $ 42 million investment in a mall in a tie-up with a company linked to a sanctioned military conglomerate, according to a transcript of his remarks seen by Reuters and companies. deposits.

Watanabe’s frank pressure for JapanTokyo’s re-engagement with Myanmar’s military government contrasts with Tokyo’s official stance, which has cut back on new aid and called on the military to end the violence. Japan has sought to balance its support for democracy in Myanmar with its efforts to counter China’s influence there, officials and analysts said.

Watanabe and the Japan Myanmar (JMA) he chairs declined to comment, as did JapanMinistry of Foreign Affairs.

His position also poses a dilemma for some Japanthe largest companies in the country that sponsor the JMA – a kind of lobby and information exchange group for Myanmar’s investments in Japan he founded, say business leaders and activists. These JMA members, like other multinationals, are under pressure from activists to withdraw from their investments in Myanmar, including the special economic zone that Watanabe helped establish.

Watanabe, who also said the army’s seizure of power in Myanmar was “legal,” made his remarks at the regular AMC meeting on June 30, when discussing his recent trips to the country. country, during which he met junta leader Min Aung Hlaing. His comments, first reported by business publication Toyo Keizai in Japanese, were printed in a newsletter distributed to the association’s sponsors and viewed by Reuters.

At least six companies have left the JMA this year, and one member company has rebuffed Watanabe’s comments, according to the companies involved.

That company, XYMAX Corp, a property management company, said it had raised concerns with JMA about the association’s stance on the coup on several occasions this year. “We do not support the coup at all, and we cannot support comments that appear to approve of the coup. There is no change in our position there, ”Ryuhei Mori, head of international affairs at XYMAX, told Reuters.

Toyota Motor Corp, which in 2019 announced plans to manufacture Hilux pickup trucks in the Special Economic Zone, left the Watanabe Group earlier this year. A spokesperson declined to discuss Toyota’s departure, including its timing. The company’s production plans for Myanmar have been on hold since the coup, Toyota said.

Hotel chain Vessel Hotel Development Co and IT company Global Innovation Consulting told Reuters they left the association after the coup. Vessel said the company “wanted to cut costs,” and Global Innovation Consulting said the membership did not bring “continued benefits” to the company.

Musashi Fusoh, a clothing maker, told Reuters he quit because he felt the information he was receiving did not justify the cost. SPARX Asset Management and credit card company JCB International Co also said they left the association earlier this year.

Some companies, while distancing themselves from the Burmese army, remained in the JMA. Among them, Kirin Holdings (2503.T) in February broke its long-standing alliance with a conglomerate linked to the Burmese military after outcry from human rights observers over the coup.

Kirin decided to end the partnership because the coup was against his human rights policy, a spokesperson said. The company declined to comment on Watanabe’s comments.

Car maker Suzuki Motor Corp and JapanSaudi Arabia’s largest trading house, Mitsubishi Corp, which has remained in JMA, declined to comment on Watanabe’s comments. Suzuki has said it prioritizes the safety of its staff, while Mitsubishi has said human rights are one of the factors it takes into account when doing business.

Masao Imamura, professor of Southeast Asian history at Japan‘s Yamagata University, said Watanabe had played a role in shaping Tokyo’s economic policy on Myanmar and JapanThese companies have relied on his influence and access to do business.

“Big JapanThese companies operating in Myanmar have been linked to people like Watanabe for too long and too deeply, so that they don’t know how to get out, ”Imamura, who was part of a coalition that challenged the policy, told Reuters. WFD on Myanmar earlier this year. .

In May, a month before the JMA meeting, Yusuke Watanabe, Watanabe’s son and secretary general of the association, wrote an article in the Diplomat saying Japan should serve as a bridge to the Myanmar junta rather than following the Western policy of “regime change”.

Imamura, and others, including representatives of citizens of Myanmar in Japan, human rights groups and foreign policy experts, wrote an open letter to JMA corporate sponsors in response.

Yusuke Watanabe’s article, they said, failed to mention “human rights violations such as killings, violence, detention and suppression of speeches against civilians by the military.” They asked each member company if they supported the JMA position as expressed by young Watanabe. The group said his comments were a way of “justifying the coup.”

“FRIENDSHIP AND TRUST”

Hideo Watanabe acted as JapanMyanmar’s senior interlocutor on economic relations since 1987. His personal connections mean he has more access to senior officials than almost any foreigner. Watanabe was at the heart of a 2011 deal that saw Japan providing nearly $ 5 billion in aid and debt cancellation in return for the rights to develop a port near Yangon.

In a written statement, Myanmar’s military government told Reuters that Watanabe was “a longtime friend” who “always seeks better relations between the governments and citizens of both nations.”

Highlighting its position in Myanmar, the junta last month credited Watanabe, along with former US diplomat Bill Richardson and Yohei Sasakawa, chairman of the Nippon Foundation, with freeing jailed US journalist Danny Fenster.

Beyond its business members, the JMA is teeming with politicians from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, including former Prime Minister Taro Aso and several former ambassadors to Myanmar. Aso’s office declined to comment on Watanabe’s comments.

The Burmese military toppled the elected government of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, citing electoral fraud, and sentenced her earlier this month to four years in prison. More than 1,300 protesters were killed by troops, independent observers said.

Despite his support for Myanmar, Watanabe expressed some misgivings. At the June meeting, Watanabe told the association that “everything the military does is not OK” and said he asked the general for a roadmap to democracy in return for an investment. He said it was important to create the conditions for the holding of the elections promised by the junta by 2023.

At the same time, Watanabe spoke of his “friendship” and “trust” with the junta leader, which is subject to sanctions from the European Union and the United States, saying that “to prevent the outbreak of the civil war in Myanmar, Japan should support the current national system, even if only to a minimal extent.

The junta said in response to questions posed by Reuters that the Watanabe shopping center project was underway. Watanabe, who said he was not encouraging investments that would directly benefit the military, told JMA he would take stock of the project once “there are concrete developments.”

Reuters

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