Japan has pledged to provide 600 billion yen ($7.5 billion) of official development assistance (ODA) in the three years starting fiscal 2013 to the five countries of the Mekong River region—Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
Japan’s development aid to the region, mainly the least-developed area of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), is important.
Particularly notable is Tokyo’s decision to forgive, in stages, 300 billion yen of its past yen loans to Myanmar and supply fresh lending to the country for the first time in 25 years. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda recently promised these measures to visiting Myanmar President Thein Sein.
Last spring, Myanmar shifted from military rule to civilian administration. In parliamentary by-elections in April, candidates of the main opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) won seats, including its leader and democracy advocate, Aung San Suu Kyi, who had been under house arrest for long periods. In a move to reward the steps Myanmar has taken toward democracy, the Japanese government has decided to resume extending yen loans to the country.
There are, however, two key conditions that should be met for Japan’s supply of aid to the country.
One is that Japan’s aid should not help Myanmar’s authoritarian government maintain its grip on power.
Even now, 80 percent of the country’s legislators are current or former members of the military. The Constitution, which allows the military to assume the full power of government during emergencies, remains effectively unamendable. The new presence of Suu Kyi and her party’s members in the parliament is unlikely to ensure the country’s swift and straight-line progress toward democracy.
Considering the situation, the Japanese government has postponed the final decision on forgiving 170 billion yen of the 300 billion yen until after watching the Myanmar government’s reform efforts for a year. Noda told Thein Sein, “This is a crucial moment to promote reforms (in Myanmar).”
The question is how to evaluate the country’s democratization. The government says the evaluation will be based on a general judgment to be made with the help of the Japanese Embassy there. But that will not be enough. A fair and transparent evaluation cannot be secured unless the situation is assessed according to specific criteria through a process involving independent investigative bodies. A special committee whose members include impartial observers like representatives of nongovernmental organizations or a research team comprising Diet members should be set up for the task.
The other condition is a rigorous investigation into Japan’s past loans to the country.
The amount of promised debt forgiveness--300 billion yen--is sizable, equal to more than half of this fiscal year’s total ODA budget of 560 billion yen. This is obviously unusual largesse.
That’s why the government should take a hard look into how Japan’s past aid to the country was actually used and find out what kind of effects the money has produced. Although the aid was provided by Liberal Democratic Party-led governments, it is necessary now to question Japan’s responsibility as the lender, including the right and wrong of the judgments of the governments.
There are high expectations within Japan’s business community for the market and development of Myanmar, which has a population of about 60 million. The top executives of many Japanese companies called on President Thein Sein during his recent visit to Japan.
But the Japanese government needs to adhere to the principle that there should be no Japanese aid to Myanmar unless it keeps moving toward democracy.
--The Asahi Shimbun, May 1
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