A former Japanese politician who campaigned to bring billions of dollars in investment from some of Japan’s biggest companies to Myanmar urged Japan to endorse its military rule, saying the country’s coup leader has ” grew fantastically as a human being, “while praising his” democratization “efforts.”

Former 87-year-old minister Hideo Watanabe is also pursuing a $ 42 million investment in a mall in a tie-up with a company linked to a sanctioned military conglomerate, according to a transcript of his remarks seen by Reuters and companies. deposits.

Watanabes’ open pressure for Japan’s re-engagement with Myanmar’s military government contrasts with Tokyo’s official stance, which has cut back on new aid and called on the military to end the violence.

Japan has sought to balance its support for democracy in Myanmar with its efforts to counter China’s influence there, officials and analysts said.

Watanabe and the Japanese Myanmar Association (JMA) he chairs declined to comment, as did the Japanese Foreign Ministry.

His position also poses a dilemma for some of the largest Japanese companies that sponsor the JMA, a sort of lobby and information exchange group on Burmese investments in Japan that he founded, according to business leaders and activists.

These JMA members, like other multinationals, are under pressure from activists to withdraw from their investments in Myanmar, including the special economic zone that Watanabe helped establish.

Watanabe, who also said the army’s seizure of power in Myanmar was legal, made his remarks at the regular AMC meeting on June 30, when reviewing his recent trips to the country, during which he met junta leader Min Aung Hlaing.

His comments, first reported by the Japanese-language business publication Toyo Keizai, were printed in a newsletter distributed to the association’s sponsors and seen by Reuters.

At least six companies have left the JMA this year, and one member company has rebuffed Watanabes’ comments, according to the companies involved.

That company, XYMAX Corp, a property management company, said it had raised concerns with JMA about the association’s stance on the coup on several occasions this year.

We don’t support the hit at all, and we can’t support comments that seem to endorse the hit. There is no change in our position there, Ryuhei Mori, head of international affairs at XYMAX, told Reuters.

Toyota Motor Corp, which in 2019 announced plans to manufacture Hilux pickup trucks in the Special Economic Zone, left the Watanabes Group earlier this year. A spokesperson declined to discuss Toyota’s departure, including its timing.

The company’s production plans for Myanmar have been on hold since the coup, Toyota said.

Hotel chain Vessel Hotel Development Co and IT company Global Innovation Consulting told Reuters they left the association after the coup. Vessel said the company wanted to cut costs, and Global Innovation Consulting said membership did not bring continued benefits to the company.

Musashi Fusoh, a clothing maker, told Reuters he quit because he felt the information he was receiving did not justify the cost.

SPARX Asset Management and credit card company JCB International Co also said they left the association earlier this year.

Some companies, while distancing themselves from the Burmese army, remained in the JMA. Among them, Kirin Holdings (2503.T) in February ended its long-standing alliance with a conglomerate linked to the Burmese military after outcry from human rights observers following the coup.

Kirin decided to end the partnership because the coup was against his human rights policy, a spokesperson said. The company declined to comment on Watanabes’ remarks.

Auto maker Suzuki Motor Corp and Japan’s largest trading house, Mitsubishi Corp, which have remained in JMA, declined to comment on Watanabes’ remarks. Suzuki has said it prioritizes the safety of its staff, while Mitsubishi has said human rights are one of the factors it takes into account when doing business.

Masao Imamura, professor of Southeast Asian history at Yamagata University of Japan, said Watanabe had been influential in shaping Tokyo’s economic policy on Myanmar and Japanese companies were rely on its influence and access to do business.

Large Japanese companies active in Myanmar have been entangled with people like Watanabe for too long and too deeply so they don’t know how to get out, Imamura, who was part of a coalition that challenged the policy, told Reuters. of JMA on Myanmar earlier this year.

In May, a month before the JMA meeting, Yusuke Watanabe, the son of Watanabe and general secretary of the association, wrote an article in the Diplomat saying that Japan should act as a bridge with the Burmese junta rather than follow. Western policy of “regime change”.

Imamura and others, including representatives of Burmese citizens in Japan, human rights groups and foreign policy experts, wrote an open letter to JMA corporate sponsors in response.

Yusuke Watanabes’ article, they said, failed to mention human rights violations such as killings, violence, detention and suppression of speeches against civilians by the military.

They asked each member company if they supported the JMA position as expressed by young Watanabe.

The group said his comments were a way of “justifying the coup.”

Hideo Watanabe has been Japan’s main intermediary with Myanmar for economic relations since 1987.

His personal connections mean he has more access to senior officials than almost any foreigner.

Watanabe was at the heart of a 2011 deal that saw Japan provide nearly $ 5 billion in aid and debt forgiveness in return for the rights to develop a port near Yangon.

In a written statement, Myanmar’s military government told Reuters that Watanabe was “a longtime friend” who “always seeks better relations between the governments and citizens of both nations.”

Highlighting its position in Myanmar, the junta last month credited Watanabe, along with former US diplomat Bill Richardson and Yohei Sasakawa, chairman of the Nippon Foundation, with freeing jailed US journalist Danny Fenster.

Beyond its business members, the JMA is teeming with politicians from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, including former Prime Minister Taro Aso and several former ambassadors to Myanmar.

Aso’s office declined to comment on Watanabes’ comments.

The Myanmar military toppled the elected government of Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, citing electoral fraud, and sentenced her earlier this month to four years in prison.

More than 1,300 protesters were killed by troops, independent observers said.

Despite his support for Myanmar, Watanabe expressed some misgivings.

At the June meeting, Watanabe told the association that “everything the military does was not OK” and said he had asked the general for a roadmap to democracy in return for an investment.

He said it was important to create the conditions for the holding of the elections promised by the junta by 2023.

At the same time, Watanabe spoke of his “friendship” and “trust” with the junta leader, which is subject to sanctions from the European Union and the United States, saying that “to prevent the outbreak of Myanmar’s civil war, Japan should support the current national system, even if only to a minimal extent. “

The junta said in response to questions posed by Reuters that the Watanabes shopping center project was underway.

Watanabe, who said he was not encouraging investments that would directly benefit the military, told JMA he would provide an update on the project once “there are concrete developments.”