IN 1988, all the industrialized nations stopped economic aid to Burma to oppose brutal repression by the country's military dictators. Now, Japan alone among the industrialized nations - in an act putting self-interest above principle - wants to break ranks and provide new aid to a government that remains one of the world's worst.
In Burma today, torture, summary execution, and forced labor are commonplace. Last year, 270,000 Burmese Muslims fled into Bangladesh to escape the reign of terror.
During the past few months, the Burmese regime released some political prisoners and announced plans for a new constitution, vesting authority in civilians although the military will continue to play a leading role.
In January, the regime convened a constitutional convention to which only selected civilian delegates were invited. The convention was dismissed after two days because of dissension, even among the handpicked delegates. Burma watchers agree that these changes are merely cosmetic and that the military has no real intention of relaxing its grip on power. Its purpose appears to be to induce foreign donor countries to resume economic assistance.
Yet Japanese foreign ministry officials say Japan is moving to resume economic aid to Burma in recognition of the military's "commitment" to a new constitution under supposed civilian rule. The resumption would apply to new projects. Japan has already resumed $134 million in funding for projects that they began before the 1988 massacres, and is the only industrialized country to have done so. An announcement that Japan will aid new projects is expected any moment.
After foreign donors suspended aid in 1988, Burma was nearly bankrupt. Strapped for hard currency, the military regime, which had previously restricted trade and investment in order to isolate Burma from the outside world, suddenly reversed course and aggressively solicited foreign business.
While many different countries are involved, Japanese commercial interests have, after the Thais, been the most important. Japanese companies have signed contracts with Burma for logging concessions, the Japanese oil company Idemitsu has invested in oil exploration, and other Japanese corporations are renovating hotels and running department stores.
Burma uses hard currency from foreign trade and investment to expand and modernize its armed forces, which have grown from 190,000 in 1988 to more than 300,000 today. Plans call for increasing the military force to 500,000 over the next few years. Although China is by far Burma's largest arms supplier, Japan has exported more than 15,000 Isuzu, Nissan, and Toyota trucks, which are being used by the Burmese military, an action criticized by European Community officials.
By providing new foreign aid, Japan would reward Burma's dictators for cosmetic steps, severely diminish any incentive for genuine human rights progress, and significantly assist the regime's military buildup. Instead, Japan should listen to three former United States State Department Asia experts - Richard Holbrooke, Morton Abramowitz, and Peter Tarnoff - who call on the world to cut all aid, trade, and investment to the Burmese regime.