By Nan Lwin 21 November 2020

The National league for Democracy (NLD) won another landslide in the Nov.8 election, and soon afterwards the Arakan Army (AA) requested that elections be held by the end of December in townships that could not vote Nov. 8 due to armed conflicts. Myanmar’s military welcomed the statement and showed willingness to hold the elections in conflict-torn northern Rakhine State. Fighting between the military and AA has ceased since the statements were issued by both sides.

The Irrawaddy’s Nan Lwin spoke with Ichiro Maruyama, Japanese Ambassador to Myanmar, about his country’s role in the peace process in Rakhine State, how the Japanese government could support economic development of Myanmar and the main challenges facing the NLD during a second term.

The Irrawaddy: Do you think the Nov.8 Myanmar election was free and fair?

Ichiro Maruyama: Taking place during the COVID-19 crisis, I would like to say that the election was a complete success. I visited ten polling stations in Yangon with Mr. Sasakawa (Yohei), the Japanese government election representative. We were unable to visit all the polling stations across the Myanmar. But, according to the reports we received, I would say that the Myanmar government held free and fair elections successfully.

The Irrawaddy: The government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has now been allowed to serve a second term. Could you see any development in Myanmar’s national reconciliation, peace process and the relation with the military under the new term?

Ichiro Maruyama: The successful election was held with collaboration between relevant government departments, political parties and election commission. Moreover, it did include the efforts of the Tatmadaw [Myanmar’s military] because they took the responsibility for security. I believe that this successful election could only be implemented with the cooperation of all stakeholders. Moreover, national reconciliation and peace are crucial to Myanmar.

The State Counselor said that national reconciliation and peace are priorities for the National League for Democracy government. The Japanese government is always ready to join with the Myanmar government to help on these issues as high priority matters.

The Irrawaddy: Recently, Mr. Sasakawa, Special Envoy of the Government of Japan for National Reconciliation in Myanmar who is also the head of the Japanese government’s election observation mission, visited Myanmar. He said that Japan had held several peace talks in Thailand with the ethnic armed groups. How does Japan mediate for peace and stability in Rakhine State?

Ichiro Maruyama: The Japanese government has always understood that there is a historical issue in Rakhine State. It is a very complex situation, so no one can solve it immediately.

If there is anything we can do to help, we would go step by step in a very positive way by standing with the government, the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s people and the local people in Rakhine State at same time. We will give our full support for Rakhine. When it comes to talking about full support, we can assist with food supplies and to improve education there. We want to think about that kind of development assistance.

On Nov. 12, Arakan Army (AA) issued a statement that it requested to hold the elections where the elections could not be held on Nov.8 [where the voting had been canceled due to security reasons]. Moreover, the Tatmadaw also welcomed the AA’s statement and announced that it is willing to hold the elections. We commended both sides for doing this. There is a story behind the statements.

This has come about because of Mr. Sasakawa, Special Envoy of the Government of Japan for National Reconciliation in Myanmar. He had deep conversations with the Commander-in-Chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, both before and after the elections. He discussed with State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi about the peace process. During the meetings, Mr. Sasakawa stressed that it is important to try to hold elections as soon as possible in Rakhine State where elections could not be held in Nov.8. The commander-in-chief also asked Mr. Sasakawa for help. He tried to reach to the Arakan Army through organizations and some people he knew, and conveyed the messages to Arakan Army that both the Tatmadaw and government hoped to hold the elections [where the voting had been canceled due to security reasons].

He urged the AA that if they want to hold an election, they needed to express their willingness. In the end, AA agreed to issue the statement. As a result, Mr. Sasakawa informed the commander-in-chief directly that the Arakan Army agreed to hold elections. He also urged the military to issue a statement, especially to demonstrate Tatmadaw’s willingness to hold election. The commander-in-chief agreed with the Mr. Sasakawa’s advice and both sides issued a statement on Nov. 12.

I understand that there will be many challenges to hold elections in those areas. There will be a lot of work to be done including security issues. However, I really hope that by overcoming these obstacles, the Myanmar government and Union Election Commission (UEC) would be working hard to hold an election in Rakhine State. By doing so, we can hope that the situation in Rakhine State would gradually improve.

The Irrawaddy: What role does Japan play in the peace process between the Arakan Army and the Tatmadaw?

Ichiro Maruyama: No foreign organizations or foreign governments would able to take responsibility for peace [in Myanmar]. The Myanmar government and the military are the most responsible entities. In Rakhine State, there had always been heavy fighting between the Arakan Army and the Tatmadaw. However, there has been no more fighting between the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army since the announcements from both sides were issued on Nov. 12. So, the prospects are good. Given these circumstances, I am really hope that the Tatmadaw and Arakan Army would negotiate for peace and build trust between them.

Irrawaddy: How do the Tatmadaw and the government go about negotiating with the Arakan Army to bring peace and stability to Rakhine State?

Ichiro Maruyama: I believed that all the armed groups including the Arakan Army are hoping for stability and development in their respective areas. I don’t think that they are fighting with the Tatmadaw just because they want conflict or fights. I think that they are also hoping their people can live in peace and stability.

I also think that Myanmar government and Tatmataw want the same thing. They hope for the stability and development in the country. I believed that all of them, armed groups including Arakan Army, government and Tatmadaw are in the same position that they want the best for their people and community. If their hopes are the same, we believe that all three stakeholders have the potential to talk [for peace].

Irrawaddy: What are the main challenges for NLD during its second term?

Ichiro Maruyama: As Myanmar State Counselor said, there are two main challenges for the NLD government in the second term. The first challenge is economic development. The second challenge is national reconciliation. The COVID-19 impact on the economy is inevitable for all the countries in world including Myanmar. In 2016, our then-Prime Minister Mr. Abe made a commitment to the State Counselor that the Japanese government would fully support the NLD government for economic development in Myanmar. Our stand has not changed.

I personally conveyed to the State Counselor congratulatory messages from Prime Minister Mr. Suga and Foreign Minister Mr. Motegi, demonstrating that there is no change in our commitment to support Myanmar’s economic development.

The relationship between the two leaders, State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, is very important for peace and national reconciliation. I am dreaming of looking forward to see their bilateral meeting [in near future] on behalf of peace and national reconciliation. I am really expecting and praying for it.

Irrawaddy: Do you see any improvement in relations between government and the military in the second term of the NLD government?

Ichiro Maruyama: The commander-in-chief spoke to reporters on election day, saying that the military would accept an election result that reflects the people’s wishes. After the election, neither the military nor the commander-in-chief spoke about the election and politics. I only saw that the commander-in-chief has been leading the peace process, which was an important task for the Tatmadaw. I think that the relationship between the government and the Tatmadaw shows the potential for a positive outlook since after the election.

The Irrawaddy: The international media have been critical of the election victory of the NLD. For example, Myanmar people have been accused of blindly voting to NLD due to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s popularity. Some have said the situation in Myanmar will not improve in the second term under the NLD. What is your opinion?

Ichiro Maruyama: It is unacceptable. I do not agree with those criticisms. I do not think so. I would say that it is completely wrong. The Myanmar people have suffered for many years, both politically and economically. I believed that people in Myanmar voted with expectations for a higher level of political, economic status and the spirit to move forward with the transition to democracy. I believed that is why the majority voted for NLD. We have no reason to criticize the government that was overwhelmingly elected by its people. The government of Japan and Japanese people are committed to support fully the government which is elected by the Myanmar people.

The Irrawaddy: What kind of assistance would Japan focus on during the second term of the NLD? Does Japan have plans to increase investment in Myanmar?

Ichiro Maruyama: We have been offering economic development assistance to Myanmar since 2011. There are a number of priority sectors for development assistance. Our first priority is to improve the transportation sector such as railway projects, ports and airports. We prioritize that because the transport sector is so important for economic development. Secondly, we also prioritize the energy and electricity sectors because it is vital for the economic development. And third, the development of Yangon, Myanmar’s commercial capital, is important. In addition to those three priorities, we are also assisting various sectors including in the rural area, the health and the education sector, and the alleviation of poverty. During the second term of the NLD government, we will keep giving priority to those things.

The Irrawaddy: The Japanese government has reportedly offered to become involved in the Dawei a strategic deep-sea port project. I would like to know when the project can be implemented if the Japanese government can officially become involved in the Dawei project?

Ichiro Maruyama: There are three Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in Myanmar, as you know. Among them, Thilawa SEZ is very successful. Therefore, Japanese government plans to continue to prioritize the development of the Thilawa SEZ. We are also very interested in the Dawei project since under the previous government of President U Thein Sein. I heard that the Myanmar government wants to prioritize it and develop it. That’s why, discussion is underway between us and the Myanmar government and relevant organizations. There are two issues in Dawei Special Economic Zone—the deep-sea port and the special economic zone. The Japanese government has decided to do both in collaboration with the private sector.

We are currently studying the deep-sea port project. After the study, we will talk with the relevant organizations about how we can implement the project. Moreover, we will also discuss with the government about how the we can finance implementation of the project.

The Irrawaddy: The current government has made several efforts for economic reforms. But it did not receive the level of investment that it expected due to the Rakhine issue. Now, COVID-19 has hit the hardest again to the Myanmar economy. What kind of reforms should the government take on to attract more foreign investment during the next term?

Ichiro Maruyama: Myanmar has a great potential for economic growth. I think that NLD government has enough experience in the past five years. Based on the experience they gained in those five years, I believe that they would be able to work effectively in the next five. Moreover, relations with the international community need to be good. If you want to attract foreign investment, you need to have good relations not only with your neighbors but also with international community. It is true that investment has not been as high as expected due to the Rakhine issue. If the Myanmar government can gradually improve the Rakhine issue in positive ways, relations with international community would become better. As a result, foreign investment levels would improve. The Japanese government will fully cooperate to help solve the Rakhine issue.

The Irrawaddy: Is there anything you would like to add, Ambassador?

Ichiro Maruyama: We have a lot of respect for the people of Myanmar, and we are very proud because you have been able to hold such a peaceful and successful election in a time of COVID-19. I think that it was due to joint efforts of the Tatmadaw, the government and the political parties. But the main factor was the Myanmar people. I saw with my own eyes, Myanmar people lined up very early morning before the polling stations opened. It is a very admirable practice. So, I believe that in a country with citizens like that, Myanmar is sure to succeed in all future political, economic and social ventures.