October 9, 2018
The diplomatic spaces in which Aung San Suu Kyi, the state counselor of Myanmar, can move without serious challenge are growing increasingly narrow.
In August, a report by a United Nations fact-finding mission declared that the violence committed in Rakhine State against members of the country’s Rohingya muslim minority was a genocide and recommended that top officials in the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military, be investigated for the role they played. Suu Kyi has steadfastly denied that any such ethnic cleansing has taken place.
In September, Suu Kyi greeted the jailing of two Reuters journalists, which had been met with outrage by many in the global community with a shrug.
“If anybody feels there has been a miscarriage of justice, I would like them to point it out,” she told an audience at the World Economic Forum in Hanoi where she fielded questions on both the crackdown on free press and treatment of Rohingya muslims.
Suu Kyi’s silence and indifference may be catching up with her on the world stage. Less than a week ago, Canada’s parliament voted unanimously voted to strip her of her honorary Canadian citizenship, but it’s unlikely that she will face any such diplomatic heat or pushback on her visit this week to Japan for the Mekong-Japan Summit in Tokyo.
While many western governments have taken a harshly critical tone against the handling of the crisis by Myanmar’s government—and of Suu Kyi’s leadership specifically—Japan has long avoided confrontation and condemnation when it comes to Myanmar’s domestic affairs.
Japan, for example, sat out when it came time to vote in December of last year on the U.N. Human Rights Council resolution to condemn the Rohingya situation in Rakhine State. And, more recently, while other nations have pulled back from the Tatmadaw—the United States has imposed two rounds of sanctions on the military—Japan has continued to affirm its support.
In February of this year, Myanmar Times reported that Kentaro Sonoura, special adviser to the Japanese prime minister on national security, said Japan believes the Tatmadaw “has an important role in consolidating democracy in Myanmar.”
Japan’s reluctance to apply diplomatic pressure in Myanmar or to speak out on topics like violence in Rakhine State or freedom of the press can be understood partly in connection with Japan’s economic interests in Myanmar. As recently as May, Japanese investment in Myanmar reached an all-time high of about $1.48 billion. Japan sees Myanmar as a market for goods, a valuable labor force, and as a means to put up a fight against China for strategic dominance in the region.