Urgently Review All Non-Humanitarian Projects
(Tokyo) – The Japanese government should immediately review its aid portfolio for Myanmar and suspend non-humanitarian projects that benefit the junta or military, Human Rights Watch said today. Japan should immediately suspend Official Development Aid (ODA) infrastructure projects carried out by Myanmar government ministries and other assistance involving military-controlled entities.
Following the February 1, 2021 military coup, the Japanese government stated it would refrain from carrying out new non-humanitarian ODA programs in Myanmar, but it has yet to adopt a clear, public position regarding ongoing projects. The latest figures show that in 2019, Japan provided about 169 billion yen (US$1.6 billion) in loan assistance, 15 billion yen ($140 million) in grant aid, and 6.7 billion yen ($62 million) in technical assistance to Myanmar.
“As Myanmar’s security forces gun down protesters on the streets, Japan should not take a ‘wait and see’ approach but should promptly and responsibly review its aid portfolio to Myanmar,” said Teppei Kasai, Asia program officer. “Japan should suspend all non-humanitarian aid projects that benefit the junta or military as part of global efforts to pressure Myanmar’s generals to cease their violent crackdown, release all political prisoners, and restore the democratically elected government.”
Ongoing nationwide protests have demonstrated widespread opposition to military rule. The response of the junta’s State Administration Council to the largely peaceful protests has been increasingly brutal. Since the coup, security forces have killed over 750 people, including at least 45 children, and detained an estimated 3,431 activists, journalists, civil servants, and politicians.
Human Rights Watch and four other organizations sent a letter to Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi on February 25 saying that the Japanese government should halt non-humanitarian ODA programs to Myanmar. A Foreign Ministry official told Human Rights Watch on April 15 that Japan’s plans for a 100 million yen ($930,000) financial grant to the Myanmar police, originally announced on July 2, 2020, had been “undetermined” due to the coup. The official did not clarify whether the aid has been permanently terminated or suspended, and no public statement has been made regarding this project, or any other ongoing aid project.
Another problematic project is the Bago River Bridge Construction Project in Yangon, approved by Japan and Myanmar in December 2016. The project involves a 31-billion-yen loan ($288 million) provided by Japan’s aid agency, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). On March 26, the local media outlet Myanmar Now reported that the project involves the Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC), a military-owned conglomerate recently sanctioned by the United States, United Kingdom, and the European Union. The report said that a MEC-owned steel mill in Hmawbi, Yangon, is supplying steel for two-thirds of the bridge’s construction and profiting enormously.
In response to a March 27 inquiry by Human Rights Watch, JICA confirmed that Yokogawa Bridge Corp., a Japanese construction firm involved in the project, had finalized a contract with MEC and its affiliate in November 2019. A representative from Yokogawa Bridge also confirmed to Human Rights Watch that it has a “business dealing” with MEC, while saying that construction was on hold partly due to a “lack of material resources.” The representative said that the company would “pay close attention to ensuring the safety of those involved in Myanmar and continue discussions with relevant parties on what to do going forward.”
The project is also being carried out in conjunction with Myanmar’s Construction Ministry and the Myanmar Port Authority under the Transport Ministry.
According to Mohinga, the aid website operated by Myanmar’s Planning and Finance Ministry, Japan is currently funding several non-humanitarian infrastructure projects directly with the Planning and Finance, and Transport and Communication Ministries. Such projects should also be reviewed for possible suspension.
Japan has been a leading donor to Myanmar. By 2017, the government had provided more than a total of 1 trillion yen ($9.3 billion) in loan assistance, more than 320 billion yen ($2.9 billion) in grant aid, and 98 billion yen ($912 million) in technical assistance. As of 2017, Official Development Aid from Japan to Myanmar ranked highest among member countries and institutions of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s development cooperation directorate. In November 2016, when Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, visited Japan, Japan announced that its public and private sectors would contribute 800 billion yen ($7.4 billion) to Myanmar over a five-year period.
The Japanese government should trigger human-rights-based conditions enshrined in its ODA charter, which states that “Japan will pay adequate attention to the situation in the recipient countries regarding the process of democratization, the rule of law and the protection of basic human rights, with a view to promoting the consolidation of democratization, the rule of law and the respect for basic human rights.”
With respect to humanitarian aid, Japan should maintain such projects but redirect the funds through nongovernmental groups to ensure it is used effectively and directly benefits populations in need. Development aid should be directed only toward basic human needs and where possible delivered through independent nongovernmental organizations.
Since the coup, the junta has overhauled the Myanmar Investment Commission and all regional investment bodies, installing nine members, including Lt. Gen. Moe Myint Tun, who is also a junta member. The US, UK, and EU have sanctioned Moe Myint Tun for his direct involvement in and responsibility for what the EU said was “undermining democracy and the rule of law in Myanmar … repressive decisions and for serious human rights violations.” As a military commander who oversaw operations in Rakhine State until 2019, he was also “therefore responsible for those serious violations and abuses against the Rohingya population,” according to the EU.
“The Japanese government’s indecisiveness and silence over suspending its non-humanitarian aid that benefits the junta is contributing to the military repression in Myanmar,” Kasai said. “Japan should swiftly and publicly show it is on the side of Myanmar’s people and not the commanders who are behind the arrests and killings of protesters every day across the country.”