A Japanese former politician who campaigned to bring billions of dollars of investment to Myanmar has urged Tokyo to endorse its military regime, saying the nation’s coup leader has “grown fantastically as a human being”, while praising his “democratisation efforts.”
Hideo Watanabe, an 87-year-old former cabinet minister, is also pursuing a $42 million shopping mall investment in a tie-up with a firm linked to an army conglomerate, according to a transcript of his remarks seen by Reuters and corporate filings.
Watanabe’s outspoken push for Japan’s re-engagement with the Myanmar military government stands in contrast with Tokyo’s official stance, which has cut new aid and called on the military to stop violence.
Japan has sought to balance its support for Myanmar democracy against its efforts to counter China’s influence there, officials and analysts have said.
Watanabe and the Japan Myanmar Association (JMA) he chairs declined to comment, as did Japan’s foreign ministry.
JMA members, like other multinationals, are under pressure from activists to step away from their investments in Myanmar, including in the special economic zone that Watanabe helped establish.
Watanabe, who also said the military’s seizure of power in Myanmar was “lawful”, made his remarks at the JMA’s regular meeting on June 30, when discussing his recent trips to the country, during which he met junta leader Min Aung Hlaing.
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His comments, first reported by business publication Toyo Keizai, were printed in a newsletter circulated to association sponsors and seen by Reuters.
Humanitarian organisations have routinely criticised the military junta that took over in February.
The government is blocking desperately needed humanitarian aid from reaching millions of displaced people and others at risk, Human Rights Watch said.
At least six companies have quit the JMA this year and one member company has pushed back on Watanabe’s comments, according to the companies involved.
That company, Xymax, a property management firm, said it had expressed concerns to the JMA about the association’s position on the coup several times this year.
“We don’t support the coup at all, and we can’t support comments that seem to endorse the coup. There’s no change in our position there,” Ryuhei Mori, an executive for international business at Xymax, told Reuters.
Myanmar’s ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi appeared in court on Friday wearing a prison uniform. Nobel laureate Suu Kyi, 76, was sentenced this month to four years in jail for incitement and breaching coronavirus regulations by a court.
Her sentence was later reduced to a two-year term of detention in her current, undisclosed location.
- Reuters, with George Russell