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By Lisa Schmidt and Tanyalak Thongyoojaroen


In February 2021, the Burmese military junta staged a coup against the democratically elected government of the National League for Democracy Party (NLD) and invalidated the results of the November 2020 general election.1 Since then, the Burmese junta has escalated its violent crackdown on dissidents, arbitrarily detaining thousands and convicting them in unfair trials.2 Burmese security forces have tortured and subjected prisoners of conscience, including activists, journalists, and human rights defenders, to cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment.3 As Burma enters its third year under military rule, the Burmese people continue to suffer from systematic and widespread human rights violations4 amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity, as declared by the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM).5

The junta established an all-encompassing system of control that spans from the legal to the administrative spheres in Burma.6 Mass killings, arbitrary arrests, torture, sexual and gender-based violence and other abuses amounting to crimes against humanity and war crimes are prevalent and frequent.7 These war crimes include indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks on civilian infrastructure, including schools, hospitals, and places of worship.8 The junta has also blocked humanitarian aid,9 putting thousands of lives in danger and internally displacing more than 1.95 million people.10 Despite international sanctions and calls for accountability, the junta continues its widespread campaign of violence to suppress any resistance and maintain its power.

In July, the junta extended the state of emergency until January 2024, forcing a further delay in national elections.11 This is the fourth extension since the February 2021 coup. The state of emergency allows the junta to assume all government functions, granting army leader Min Aung Hlaing, senior general and de facto prime minister since the coup, and commander-in-chief of the military, legislative, judicial, and executive powers.

While many human rights activists have called on the international community to impose sanctions and cut off any support for the junta, one democratic country has remained steadfast in its support for Burma: Japan. Japan’s close historical ties with Burma, which were considered the strongest among Asian countries, remain firm.12

As a democratic country in Asia, one that generally adheres to the principles of rule of law and respect for human rights and international law, Japan’s involvement with Burma’s military government raises concerns.

Despite some condemnations of the junta’s crimes, Japan maintains strong geopolitical relations, directly and indirectly supporting the junta, and failing to meaningfully address its abuses.13

Japan’s actions toward Burma are incongruous with their commitments to upholding democratic values and international law. They are an anomaly among leading democracies of the world in refusing to impose stricter measures against the junta. Japan’s problematic diplomatic stance toward Burma carries negative consequences for the Burmese people.


According to the Human Rights Foundation’s political regime analysis, Burma is a fully authoritarian regime. From 1962 to 2011, Burma endured hardline military rule characterized by widespread human rights violations, particularly regarding freedoms of assembly, association, and the press.14 Democratic reforms began to take root in 2011 and, four years later, culminated in the appointment of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi as prime minister through what was widely observed as free and fair elections. These reforms came to a sudden halt in 2021, when Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of the armed forces, staged a coup that toppled Suu Kyi’s democratically elected government and effectively brought Burma back under the military’s thumb.15 Across the country, people of all backgrounds have come together to defy the junta. In response, the junta violently cracked down on the pro-democracy protests that burgeoned nationwide, resulting in thousands of arbitrary detentions and thousands of deaths. Since the coup, at least 25,000 people have been arrested and more than 4,200 killed, including children.16

The military-created 2008 Constitution grants significant powers to army leaders to control Burma’s political system and guarantees the army one-quarter of the seats in the upper and lower houses of parliament and veto power over any legislation.17 After the 2021 coup, the junta inserted amendments to the penal and criminal codes to criminalize any dissent.18

Though Burma is considered one of the world’s most ethnically diverse countries, the regime systematically oppresses and discriminates against several groups,19 notably the Rohingya, a Muslim-majority ethnic group largely residing in the Rakhine State. Burma’s systematic oppression of ethnic minorities is embedded in laws, leading to discriminatory policies ranging from exclusionary citizenship laws to restrictions on freedom of movement that have compelled hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims to flee their homes to neighboring countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, and Bangladesh.20 In 2017, the military renewed a brutal campaign of persecution of the Rohingya, including rape, murder, and arson.21 More than 10,000 were killed,22 and at least 700,000 fled the country to flood-prone camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.23 In the past years, several countries have acknowledged the Rohingya genocide and filed a case against Burma at the International Court of Justice (ICJ).24 A vast number of international bodies, UN agencies, international criminal court officials, human rights groups, journalists, and governments recognize what is happening as a genocide.

Contrastingly, Japan, an island nation in East Asia, operates as a multiparty parliamentary democracy and boasts one of the world’s largest economies.25 Highly regarded for respecting political and civil liberties, Japan provides sufficient space for civilians to address their grievances with the government through public and secure accountability mechanisms.26 Japan is a member of the G7, G20, ASEAN, a current non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, and various other international institutions. Moreover, Japan has ratified all principled human rights treaties and other major treaties, affirming its appreciation and willingness to abide by international human rights standards.


Japan and Burma have a “special” relationship that dates back to 1941.27 Japan supported the formation of the Burmese nationalists known as “Thirty Comrades,” which later formed the Burma Independence Army (BIA) to spearhead Burma’s struggle for independence.28 Burma’s national military, the Tatmadaw, which grew out of the BIA, was established and largely modeled after Japanese lines.29 Many of its officers even studied at Japanese military academies during the Second World War.30

Though the relationship temporarily soured with Japan’s invasion of Burma during World War II, in 1954, Japan and Burma established formal diplomatic relations through the Peace Treaty and Agreement on Reparations and Economics.31 A bilateral peace treaty also forged stronger economic collaboration and paved the way for future foreign assistance provided to Burma.32 Even during the authoritarian rule of Gen. Ne Win from 1962-1988, Japan provided a total of US $2.2 billion in aid, making Japan the biggest donor to Burma.33 After being pressured by the United States to abstain from providing economic aid to Burma, from 1988 to 2011, Japanese assistance took the form of grants for debt relief and humanitarian aid through Official Development Assistance (ODA) programs.34

Today, this close-knit relationship between Japan and Burma remains in the form of aid, investment, political cooperation, and military ties.


Despite the international wave of sanctions imposed against the genocidal Burmese junta, Japan continues to maintain a relationship, politically, economically, and militarily, with the regime. Other democracies in the region, such as South Korea and Australia, have ceased all military support for Burma, banned sales of arms to Burma,35 and imposed additional targeted financial sanctions and travel bans on individuals responsible for the coup and subsequent human rights violations, as well as on military-owned holding companies.36

Japan has refused to oppose economic sanctions,37 claiming that the move would only “fuel the situation.”38 Japan fears that if they were to impose stricter measures against Burma, they would push Burma into China’s embrace.39 As one of Japan’s largest competitors in every possible sphere, the threat of China’s regional leadership has compelled Japan to maintain economic relations with Burma to bolster its own position in the region. In the international realm, Japan is the only G7 nation that has not yet imposed sanctions against the junta, despite being one of the largest donors and investors in Burma. A majority of Japanese companies investing in Burma have either maintained or expanded their operations since the 2021 coup.40

Japan continues to host official visits for Burmese politicians, offering legitimacy to the military junta. Just six months after the coup, Min Aung Hlaing, now Burma’s self-proclaimed prime minister, met with Hiromichi Watanabe, a Japanese lawmaker and politician of the leading party, the Liberal Democratic Party.41 The two discussed how to bolster bilateral ties and encourage investment. More recently, in September, pro-junta Burmese delegates met with two Japanese lawmakers in Tokyo to lobby for support from Japanese lawmakers for the junta’s upcoming planned and likely fraudulent elections.42

In addition, Japan continues to enable the Burmese junta by either blatantly ignoring the regime’s crimes against humanity against the Rohingya or feeding into state-sanctioned narratives discriminating against the minority in international forums.43 In August 2020, the Japanese ambassador to Burma, Ichiro Maruyama, gave an interview with BBC Burma and referred to the Rohingya as “Bengali,” a racist and derogatory term that falsely implies that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh rather than rightful citizens of Burma.44 Moreover, Japan has abstained from all UN resolutions regarding Burma since 2017, refusing to use the word “Rohingya,” and continues to encourage aid and investments in Burma, highlighting its continued support and engagement with the junta.45


Japan has not only continued a long-lasting diplomatic relationship with Burma but also persisted in its exports to the junta, including tools used for surveillance and communication that have been utilized by the junta to suppress dissent. In March 2021, Justice for Myanmar, a covert group of activists working to promote justice and accountability in Burma, reported that the junta and security forces used digital tools to silence pro-democracy and anti-coup protesters.46 The police and security forces purchased tools that helped them track data use, gather social media information, and hack passwords.47

Japan’s exports to Burma also come in the form of development aid. Last year, Burma reportedly exploited Japan’s aid for military purposes.48 Japan’s Foreign Ministry confirmed that the junta misused two Japanese-funded passenger ships to transport Burmese soldiers and weapons in the Rakhine state, where the junta had intensified a crackdown on ethnic minorities, particularly the Rohingya.49 The ships, which were provided under the Official Development Assistance (ODA) program, were intended to transport students and workers.50 In light of the misuse of resources, Japan expressed its displeasure after finding out that the junta used Japanese-funded civilian ships for military purposes by releasing a statement calling on the junta to work towards a peaceful resolution of the situation and to immediately stop the violence.51 Though Japan later suspended new development aid programs in Burma, Japan continued its existing ODA projects in Burma.52

While some Japanese politicians have expressed concern over its economic ties, Japan’s cooperation with Burma persists, indicating a reluctance to sever ties despite mounting pressure.53


Following the 2021 coup, the junta carried out deadly airstrikes, killing dozens of civilians, including children. More than 2.6 million people have fled their homes since the coup, according to the independent research group Institute for Strategy and Policy (ISP)-Myanmar.54 Several Burmese personnel implicated in these human rights violations trained at Japan’s various defense institutions.55

Since 2015, the Japanese government has accepted cadets and officers from Burma under Article 100(2) of the Self-Defense Forces Act, permitting training and education of foreign nationals in Defence Ministry facilities.56 For example, Brig. Gen. Tin Soe, who oversaw operations in southern Shan and the Karenni States and was responsible for a massacre of civilians, among other atrocities, received training at Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Force Staff College from August 2016 to March 2017.57 According to sources, Tin Soe left Japan after the 2021 coup and was appointed a brigadier general.58 Furthermore, Japan-trained Lt. Col. Hlwan Moe took part in airstrikes over the Magway region.59 Hlwan Moe was trained at Japan’s Air Command and Staff College from August 2016 to March 2017. He is reportedly a deputy commander in Magway,60 a region with the second-highest number of displaced persons in the country due to ongoing violence.61

Japan has accepted two cadets and two officers from Burma since 2021. As of December 2021, 10 months after the coup, Japan was still hosting eight cadets from Burma.62 In 2022, Japan accepted an additional two cadets and two officers from Burma for training.63 Though Japan’s Defense Ministry announced in September that it would halt the military training program,64 the Japanese government reportedly continued collaboration and projects that benefited the Burmese military.65

In addition to the inflow of resources and aid, Japanese officials have also maintained open channels of communication with high-level military personnel. In October 2019, Min Aung Hlaing traveled to Japan at the invitation of the Japanese Ministry of Defense.66 The invitation came after the US sanctioned Min Aung Hlaing and Burmese military leaders over Rohingya abuses,67 and a United Nations (UN)-backed fact-finding mission declared that Min Aung Hlaing should be “investigated and prosecuted” for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide against the Rohingya people.68 Min Aung Hlaing met with government ministers, including former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe,69 where they reportedly discussed how the Burmese military should address the allegations of widespread human rights violations through an internal investigation, without mentioning the independent investigation by the UN.70


Japan’s continued collaboration on economic, political, and military fronts with the dictatorial regime currently in power in Burma is problematic because it enables the junta to continue to commit crimes against humanity, including a genocide against the Burmese Rohingya population. As a member of the G7, a current member of the UN Security Council, and a significant global political and economic force, Japan’s unwillingness to leverage its influence to pressure the brutal Burmese military junta by ceasing direct and indirect support diminishes Japan’s standing as a model of democracy. Japan’s words and commitments to standing by the rule of law, human rights, and international law are not consistent with their action, or in this case, inaction against the junta.


HRF has the following recommendations for the government of Japan:

1. Suspend all non-humanitarian aid to Burma.
2. Impose targeted economic sanctions on the Burmese military, military leaders, and military-owned conglomerates. Sanctions should be tied to clear benchmarks, including an end to indiscriminate attacks on civilians, and the unconditional and immediate release of all prisoners of conscience.
3. Immediately end all forms of military cooperation with the junta.
4. Support UN resolutions that call for a ceasefire, arms embargo, or sanctions on Burma.

26 Id.

28 Id.

30 Id.

34 Id.

38 Id.

43 Id.

47 Id.

49 Id.

56 Id.

57 Id.

58 Id.

60 Id.

70 Id.