Complicit Silence: Japan’s Inaction in Myanmar’s Time of Need

June 9th, 2023  •  Author:   Progressive Voice  •  9 minute read
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Japan has a greater responsibility, not only as a democratic country in Asia, but especially as the current member of the UN Security Council (UNSC), to ensure that its own engagement in Myanmar does not allow the illegitimate military junta to continue to disregard the UNSC Resolution passed by the Council in December 2022.

This week, the UN Special Envoy to Myanmar, Noeleen Heyzer, announced that she is leaving her position in mid-June. Her resignation follows a turbulent 20 months in which little was accomplished towards ending the Myanmar military’s violence. Her mandate is just one of the litanies of Special Envoy positions that continue to ineffectively focus on Myanmar’s war criminals in hopes of solving Myanmar’s multifaceted crises. This includes Japan’s Special Envoy for National Reconciliation, Yohei Sasakawa, who has previously heavily engaged in the most expensive failed peace industry in Myanmar’s history, bringing projects and money in exchange for peace. More recently, he has made comments in support of the Myanmar junta’s plan for illegal elections, comments that are against the will of the people of Myanmar.  

Yohei Sasakawa, Chairman of the Nippon Foundation, was named Special Envoy of the Government of Japan for National Reconciliation in Myanmar by the Cabinet of Japan in 2013. He has seemingly carried out this mandate since his appointment, making multiple visits to Myanmar, according to his blog posts and media reports. However, the details and scope of his mandate have never been made publicly available. Therefore, over 400 Myanmar civil society organizations expressed grave concerns at the Special Envoy’s comments on 6 February, in which he expressed his support for the military’s illegal sham “elections,” stating to the media that “The first step in democratization is elections. They must be held no matter what.”  

Japanese civil society organization, Mekong Watch, together with Progressive Voice, reiterated concerns expressed by Myanmar civil society to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs this week, who confirmed that Sasakawa has neither received any funds from the Japanese Government to conduct his work nor has he reported to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) since the military’s attempted coup in 2021. Prior to 1 February 2021, Sasakawa reported to and was funded by MOFA. A representative from the ministry suggested we use our “imagination” to read between the lines. Perhaps Sasakawa is no longer the Special Envoy of the Government of Japan? Without clarity from the Japanese Government who appointed him as their Special Envoy, our imagination can only take us so far. 

The Japanese Government’s refusal to make its position clear, both in terms of Sasakawa’s mandate and its position on junta’s sham elections is problematic for several reasons. Firstly, it creates immense confusion about the position of the Japanese Government. While the Japanese Government has stated to the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar that “Japan’s view is that elections held under current conditions, without the release of political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, would create further resentment against the military and make a peaceful resolution of the crisis in Myanmar more difficult,” it has not published any official statements itself to make its position publicly transparent, especially to the Myanmar people, allowing parties like Sasakwa to meddle. As stated by Yuka Kiguchi, Executive Director of Mekong Watch, “Allowing the Special Envoy to conduct activities in Myanmar without transparency and without providing any explanation invites suspicion from the people of Myanmar. Such a situation would not be compatible with Japan’s interests as a nation respecting democracy and rule of law.”

Japan’s engagement in Myanmar, including its continuing provision of Official Development Assistance (ODA) despite documented projects that include Myanmar military’s conglomerates as partners, has also not been compatible with Japan’s interest and image as a democratic nation in Asia. While no new ODA is being provided by Japan, trillions of yen (billions of US dollars) have already been cumulatively provided in loan assistance and grant aid as well as technical assistance, making Japan one of the current top donors to Myanmar. Much of the ODA is provided in loans which the people of Myanmar must eventually pay back. Worse, some of this fund continues to finance the Myanmar military enabling the military to continue to commit atrocity crimes across the country. Latest report by Justice For Myanmar exposed how railway and bridge projects in Myanmar, financed by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), continued despite them falling under the illegal military junta’s control, risking aiding the military’s movement of troops and arms to commit atrocity crimes. 

The Japanese Government has also done very little to ensure that Japanese businesses do not continue to conduct business with the Myanmar military. Although Japan’s recent announcement to withdraw aid for the Yangon-Mandalay Railway Project was a step in the right direction, its passivity continues to enrich those who are responsible for genocide against the Rohingya and war crimes and crimes against humanity. Furthermore, the Japanese Government has not made any official announcement as regards its withdrawal of the railway project, but allowed the media to report the decision, which raises concerns that the project can be resumed quietly at any time. 

Japan has a greater responsibility, not only as a democratic country in Asia, but especially as the current member of the UN Security Council (UNSC), to ensure that its own engagement in Myanmar does not allow the illegitimate military junta to continue to disregard the UNSC Resolution passed by the Council in December 2022. During an informal meeting of the members of the UNSC (“Arria-formula” meeting) on Myanmar organized by the UK on 15 May, Japan urged a follow up on the UNSC Resolution 2669, which demanded the immediate end to violence. Its calls will remain hollow unless Japan first ends its financial support to the Myanmar military and end all ODA that is benefitting the war criminals. As stated by over 200 civil society organizations, “If Japan is to assert its leadership as Asia’s rights-respecting democracy on the world stage, it must first end its complicity in the Myanmar military’s atrocity crimes.”

As Khin Ohmar of Progressive Voice stated during a protest outside of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tokyo, Japan, “Myanmar can no longer afford to lose its young people in Myanmar who are being killed brutally by the military every single day. All the ODA must be suspended until Myanmar has transitioned to federal democracy. Our calls need to be responded by the Japanese Government.”


[1] One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.

Resources from the past week


Statements and Press Releases

Open Letter: Japan’s leadership urgently needed at the UN Security Council to stop Myanmar military’s atrocity crimes as Myanmar faces man-made and natural disasters

By 239 Organizations

အိတ်ဖွင့်ပေးစာ – မြန်မာနိုင်ငံ၌ လူမှဖန်တီးသော အကျပ်အတည်းများနှင့် သဘာဝကြောင့်ဖြစ်ပေါ်သော ဘေးအန္တရာယ်များကို ရင်ဆိုင်နေရချိန်တွင် မြန်မာစစ်အုပ်စု၏ ရက်စက်ကြမ်းကြုတ်သော ရာဇဝတ်မှုများကို ရပ်တန့်ရန် ကုလသမဂ္ဂလုံခြုံရေးကောင်စီတွင် ဂျပန်နိုင်ငံ၏ ဦးဆောင်မှု အရေးပေါ်လိုအပ်လျက်ရှိနေသည်

By 239 Organizations

Global: Rohingya reparations and human rights must top Meta shareholders agenda

By Amnesty International

Statement by Arakan Civil Society Organizations Regarding the Profound Consequences of Cyclone Mocha on the People of Arakan

By Arakan Civil Society Organizations

Jewellery Retailers Challenged on Burma/Myanmar Gems Sourcing

By Burma Campaign UK

Imprisoned Myanmar journalist sentenced to additional 10 years on terror charge

By Committee to Protect Journalists

Civil Society makes a joint submission to the GANHRI-SCA ahead of the Special Review of the MNHRC in October 2023

By CSO Working Group on Independent National Human Rights Institution (Burma/Myanmar), the Asian NGO Network on National Human Rights Institutions (ANNI)

၂၀၂၃ ခုနှစ် အောက်တိုဘာလတွင် MNHRC အပေါ် အထူးသုံးသပ်ချက် မပြုလုပ်မီ အရပ်ဘက်လူထု အဖွဲ့အစည်းများမှ GANHRI-SCA ထံသို့ တင်ပြလွှာတစ်စောင် ပေးပို့တင်သွင်း

By CSO Working Group on Independent National Human Rights Institution (Burma/Myanmar), the Asian NGO Network on National Human Rights Institutions (ANNI)

Japan’s railway projects risk aiding & abetting Myanmar junta’s crimes

By Justice For Myanmar

Japan’s Special Envoy for National Reconciliation in Myanmar Lacks Accountability and Transparency

By Mekong Watch, Progressive Voice

မြန်မာနိုင်ငံ အမျိုးသားပြန်လည်သင့်မြတ်ရေးဆိုင်ရာ ဂျပန်အစိုးရ၏ အထူးသံတမန်သည် တာဝန်ယူမှု တာဝန်ခံမှုနှင့် ပွင့်လင်းမြင်သာမှု ကင်းမဲ့နေသည်

By Mekong Watch, Progressive Voice

Ordinance 1/2023

By National Unity Government of Myanmar

Statement on Cyclone Mocha relief

By National Unity Government (Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

Statement on the Foreign Minister’s meeting with UN Special Envoy on Myanmar Dr. Noeleen Heyzer

By National Unity Government (Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

စစ်ကိုင်းဖိုရမ်(ပထမအကြိမ်) ထုတ်ပြန်ကြေညာချက်

By Sagaing Forum

Two women and a toddler killed, eighteen civilians injured by SAC airstrikes and shelling in Pekhon and Pinlaung townships

By Shan Human Rights Foundation

UNODC report: East and Southeast Asian synthetic drug supply remains at extreme levels and diversifies

By United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime

WFP steps up assistance to those affected by Cyclone Mocha in Myanmar

By World Food Programme



Monthly Overview: While Cyclone Mocha Threatened to Destabilise Civilian Livelihoods and Safety, the Military Junta Continued to Deploy Attacks

By Human Rights Foundation of Monland

အနာဂါတ်မှာ ဘယ်လိုရှင်သန်မလဲ – ကရင်နီပြည်နယ်မှရက်စက်ကြမ်းကြုတ်သော ရာဇဝတ်မှုများ

By Karenni Human Rights Group, Kayan Women’s Organization, Karenni National Women’s Organization, Kayah State Peace Monitoring Network

The Sagaing Forum: Delving Into New Military-Political Landscapes – Issue 106

By Myanmar Peace Monitor

Villages burn in Sagaing

By Myanmar Witness

Devastation in Karen State

By Myanmar Witness

ပြည်သူ့ကာကွယ်ရေးကဏ္ဍ အခြေပြစာတမ်း

By National Unity Government (Ministry of Defence)

Human Rights Situation weekly update (May 22 to 31, 2023)

By Network for Human Rights Documentation – Burma

Myanmar’s Interrupted Transition: The Democratic Instinct Survives

By Peace Research Institute Oslo

Synthetic Drugs in East and Southeast Asia: latest developments and challenges 2023

By United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime

Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”