Myanmar is poised to receive the lion’s share of Japan’s new $19.2 billion aid package to Southeast Asia as the former military regime continues its transition to democracy.
The five-year commitment announced by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will focus mainly on development assistance to reduce poverty and infrastructure in member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, where Myanmar’s ongoing democratization is a top priority for Tokyo, according to a top Japanese official.
“The exception [to business-as-usual] would be Myanmar because of the [ongoing] efforts to democratize the nation. We have supported these efforts as part of the [official development assistance] given to the country,” Misumi Takahito, principal deputy director of the Ministry of Foreign Affair’s country assistance planning division office, told Devex.
He added: “Before, we have provided limited assistance [to Myanmar] including basic human needs. But last year, we have given assistance on pro-democracy policies including skills training and governance consultancy. This will continue.”
Aside from Myanmar, Vietnam and select areas in the Mekong sub-region will also be prioritized for development assistance from Japan in ASEAN.
Despite the region’s booming economic growth, over half of Southeast Asia’s population remains poverty-stricken. Unemployment, lack of education and insufficient health coverage are just some of the persisting problems that affect development progress. Japan wants to help address these issues while keeping ties close “strategically,” noted Takahito.
Aid not linked to Chinese foreign policy
For the last half century, relations between Japan and members of ASEAN have had their ups and downs, but recently there had been a steadily increasing amount of development cooperation.
This is seen by many analysts as a thinly veiled strategy to maintain diplomatic influence in the region at a time when China is pursuing an assertive territorial policy in East Asia that has led to rows with most of its neighbors
Takahito officially denied this.
“This kind of ODA pledge has nothing to do with any specific country, including China. It’s a matter of importance for us to help ASEAN, but it doesn’t have to do with any other situation,” he noted.
As of posting time, detailed plans regarding the distribution of the aid are not yet finalized, but Takahito said it will likely follow the pattern of previous commitments. International organizations may avail of the funding but most of the money will go directly to the governments.
Interested NGOs must have a good track record, credibility and expertise to be considered. But given the general scope of the assistance, Takahito said funding approvals will be on a “case to case basis.”
“We have some guidelines. But it will be a case to case basis. We receive their proposals on each project. Basically from there, based on our [available] funding, we’ll look at it for approval. These NGOs should be established and credible in their respective fields,” he concluded.
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