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Japan Faces Dilemma On Decision To Get Involved With The Coup In Myanmar

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Biden administration wants to put democracy at the core of its foreign policy. The coup in Myanmar a few weeks ago is an early test, and the administration has slapped sanctions on the coup leaders. Washington also wants other countries to follow its lead. Japan has some real influence in Myanmar, and NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports, this puts Japan in a tough spot.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Katsuyuki Imoto is a Japanese civil society activist and former Buddhist monk. He spent three years in Myanmar's jungles organizing ethnic insurgents to negotiate cease-fires with the military. He's a colorful example of how Japanese officials and NGOs work within the system in Myanmar to diffuse conflicts, win friends and gain influence. Imoto says Japan should use its leverage to nudge Myanmar back towards democracy. He says sanctions should be used only as a last resort.

KATSUYUKI IMOTO: (Through interpreter) If Japan gets involved in opposing sanctions, we could lose the channels of communication that we have. What we should do now is to mediate between the Burmese military and the Americans and Europeans.

KUHN: That appears to be happening already. Japanese media reports that Ichiro Maruyama, Japan's ambassador to Myanmar, has been in contact with the country's military chief and coup leader, General Min Aung Hlaing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ICHIRO MARUYAMA: (Speaking non-English language).

KUHN: Last week, Maruyama told protesters outside his embassy that Japan would not ignore their voices. He called for the military to release de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi from detention and resolve problems democratically. Japan maintained friendly ties with the ruling junta during decades when it was isolated and sanctioned by Western nations. And they stayed in touch with Suu Kyi. In fact, Burma's army was founded in 1941 by Aung San Suu Kyi's father, General Aung San, with help from imperial Japan, both of whom wanted to oust Burma's British colonial rulers.

MAIKO ICHIHARA: The importance of Myanmar for Japan is partially historical, but more due to this geopolitical contestation between Japan and China.

KUHN: Maiko Ichihara is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She notes that Japan's influence in Myanmar has grown over the past decade of semi-civilian government, which the military tolerated partly in order to decrease its dependence on China. Japan is the biggest donor of development aid to Myanmar among the developed economies. But Ichihara points to one argument about why Japan has proceeded cautiously.

ICHIHARA: If Japan was to try to further push the country toward democratization, then there could be a backlash from the military.

KUHN: That backlash has now happened, and Tokyo faces a dilemma. It can claim the moral high ground and sanction the military, but then it risks losing influence, both in general and relative to China. Derek Mitchell is president of the National Democratic Institute and U.S. ambassador to Myanmar from 2012 to 2016. He says there's an intense debate going on in Tokyo about what to do.

DEREK MITCHELL: If Japan sort of does what it normally does, which is protect its business interests and sort of casts aside the issues and values in democracy, then, you know, the military will essentially wait this out. And they'll say, well, this is the West or - they won't feel the heat.

KUHN: That would undermine Japan's own claims to be practicing values-based diplomacy. And...

MITCHELL: It will come at the expense of the Biden administration's confidence that its doctrine of leaning on allies to join it in this global values competition, that those allies will truly be there.

KUHN: He adds that Japan doesn't have to join the U.S. in imposing sanctions yet; it just needs to make Myanmar's military believe that it could. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE NEW MASTERSOUNDS' "IN THE MIDDLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.