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A couple who was both old friend and good friend to Myanmar: Former Japanese Prime Minister Mr Shinzo Abe and Madame Akie Abe

Author: Former Ambassador U Hla Myint Translated by: TZM

ON the morning of 8 July 2022, I heard about the tragedy of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. He was shot by an improvised gun while he was canvassing for an LDP senate candidate in Nara city of Japan. I was deeply shocked and distressed by this news since this kind of incident was unusual in Japan, a country where gun control legislation is strictly imposed. I prayed for him to survive but my prayers were gun control answered. Mr Abe passed away that evening. If we feel a heavy heart and mourn his tragic demise, there is no word to describe the sadness of his own Japanese people. Not only him but his wife, Madame Akie Abe, was both an old friend and good friend of us, the Myanmar people.

On 12 July 2005, 17 years ago from today, I was assigned to move to Japan from Brazil. At that time, the Japanese Prime Minister was Mr Junichiro Koizumi. He had a similar hairstyle to American actor Richard Gere but a frosty face. For us who came from a country of smiles, he seemed icy.

He had a special friendship like dancing together at a party one with then US President George W. Bush. Even though Japan abstained to vote whenever there was a resolution about Myanmar at the United Nations, it stood differently during Koizumi’s term. Those were the rough times in Japan-Myanmar relations and not easy for Myanmar diplomats in Japan either.

The relations between Myanmar and Japan have a long history. Based on my knowledge, the bilateral relations began with the military training of General Aung San and thirty comrades. Burma Independence Army (BIA) was established in Bangkok for the fight against British rule. Alongside Japan, BIA was able to force British troops to Imphal. Later, Japan nominally declared Myanmar independence and ruled for three years. With the appointment of Japan, Dr Ba Maw became the Premier of Myanmar.

Under Japanese rules, many youths from Myanmar were sent to receive training at the Japanese imperial military academies. As far as I know, former Commander-in-Chief (Air), Brigadier-General Thaung Dan, and former Commander of the South-East Command and Minister for the Ministry of Industry-1, Brigadier-General Tint Swe, are alumni of Japanese Imperial Military Academies. There are also many other alumni.

Even though I do not know whether and to which extent, the Japanese military tactics and training are still practised in the current Myanmar military, I am sure that combat-use food containers (Hankaw) brought by Japan are still useful. The term “Hankaw” means food container in the Japanese language and was still widely used by the time I joined the Myanmar military. Moreover, the Hankaws we used at the time were also Made-in-Japan ones imported from Daimaru, Japan. On the frontline, they were useful in many ways such as in cooking meals, carrying water and measuring rations. Back then, we used to measure rice and cooking oil that a distance of two-thirds of a finger from the top of the Hankaw was one Pyi of rice (estimated 2,560 ml) and a distance of a finger from the top of the Hankaw was one viss of cooking oil. This was a gentleman’s agreement between Company Quartermaster CQ and store men in the military.

After the two atomic bomb attacks over the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the US (the first atomic bomb attack in the world), the Japanese forces including the ones assigned in Myanmar had to surrender. The Japanese soldiers in Myanmar were arrested as war prisoners and some absconded. The pure-hearted Myanmar people who suffered from torture under the Japanese rule gave the absconding Japanese soldiers food and all sorts of the cure while they themselves were facing a dearth. They helped to hide them despite threats to their own life. We Myanmar people are pure, kind-hearted and forgiving persons indeed.

The Japanese also took our leader, the former Premier of Myanmar, Dr Ba Maw, to Japan and was hidden and looked after him at the Yakusho Temple in Nigata Prefecture. Later they surrendered to the Allies. There is a museum dedicated to Dr Ba Maw in that temple.

After the war, Japan was devastated by the atomic bomb and bombings all over the country, damage caused by the fire and the whole country was completely destroyed as well. In particular, most of the industrial areas were great hit hard. In addition, they have recently become poor due to the cost of participating in the World War. They had to divide the rice ball “Onigiri” into two parts, like in the movie “O-Shin”, and have to eat it for two people. At that time, it was donated to Japan either 200,000 tonnes of rice from our country or I don’t know exactly how much, but I have heard through word-of-mouth information. This documentation should also be sought.

As a custom of the war-losing country, Japan has to pay war reparations to Myanmar. The Chairman of our war reparations commission showed sympathy and understanding towards the Japanese. The chairman was greatly criticized about this as Japan could give us more.

The Lawpita hydroelectricity, which was built with that war reparation money, is still in use today. Hino, Mazda and TE motorcars were able to be installed and produced in Myanmar. National rice cooker, oven-pot National Matsushita lamps, batteries, light switch production were as well. At that time, we had to use magnets.

The President of Matsushita once visited Myanmar that the national light switch in the hotel where he stayed was more than 20 years old, but it still works with a spark, so it seems to be very impressive. It’s a pile of paperbacks, but it’s still imported to my country, where I used to prefer their national light switch until I arrived in Japan.

Japan ended the World War but the suffering did not end for the Japanese people. During the World War, Japanese soldiers died for various reasons throughout Asia and were buried in different ways in various places. In their tradition, it is believed that only by visiting the graves of the dead once a year and praying will they reach a good common life. Therefore, it has become the most important matter to pick up the bones of their parents, brothers, sisters, and relatives of the Japanese soldiers who are buried in various regions in Asia and bring them to Japan, bury them, and hold prayers. In coordination with the governments of the respective countries, the collection of the bones of the deceased-Japanese soldiers was led by prominent figures related to living Japanese veterans.

Mr Imaizumi (Chairman of the Imaizumi Memorial Scholarship Association), a veteran who worked as a bone picker for such dead Japanese soldiers in Burma, recounted his experience as follows: “We had to live hesitantly in a tent near the railway station of a small town in Myanmar to pick up the bones. Soon the local people found us and recognized us as Japanese bone-picking groups. They helped our task willingly. Some food, fruits, and vegetables were even given as gifts. It made us very happy and surprised. Local people had never wanted bone-picking groups to go to other countries. Even they made aggression towards such groups. At first, we were worried that this would also happen in Myanmar. We were amazed and respected the spirit of compassionate and considerate Myanmar people who had patience, a positive attitude, and a willingness to help.”

However, at this time, only a few Japanese people alive who taught us military education; helped and cared for our Myanmar citizens when they almost lost the war; who knew that we helped them by sending rice when they were in trouble after the war; who knew that war reparations were taken lightly; who knew that they had given permission to pick up the bones of Japanese soldiers who had died all over Myanmar.

This is a rough picture of the history of mutual relations between Japan and Myanmar.

When we came to Japan in 2005, we saw that there are still some big figures from the politics and business sectors who know the history between our two countries. As a diplomat, I had to do my best to improve and strengthen the relationship between the two countries with the help of people over the age of 80 who still have a special bond with Myanmar.

I was able to host Mr Shinzo Abe, the Chief Cabinet Secretary of the Cabinet of the Government, for a Luncheon at Hotel Okura in Tokyo on the afternoon of 17 May 2006. Mr Shinzo Abe will run in the LDP presidential election after the resignation of Koizumi in September. According to public polls, he was one of the top contenders. A total of four persons, including Kishi Nobuo, the younger brother of Mr Shinzo Abe, the Japanese Deputy Foreign Minister Shiozaki Yasuhisa, and House of Representatives member Nishimura Yasutoshi also attended the Luncheon and had an open discussion on the promotion of the relationship between the two countries.

Before this, we applied for a visa for his wife, Madame Akie Abe, to visit Myanmar. However, at that reception, he did not say a single word about his wife’s visit to Myanmar. The Chief Cabinet Secretary is the most powerful person in the Japanese Government after the Prime Minister. He has a smiling face, full of energy, and looked very youthful. I was really delighted to be able to speak with a smiling friend.

Mr Shinzo Abe’s grandfather was Nobusuki Kishi who was the Prime Minister in the pre-war era. His father is Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe. Mr Shinzo Abe said that he was accompanied as a personal officer on his father’s trip to Myanmar. At that time, some of the Ministers of the Myanmar government at that time were able to read and speak the Japanese language. At the reception, Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe seemed to be very fond of the Myanmar people when they spoke Japanese words cleverly and sang Japanese songs excellently. There is no doubt that Shinzo Abe was also influenced by Myanmar’s sincerity.

It is a testimony that Mr Shinzo Abe once suggested to his wife for visiting Myanmar when they thought of establishing a GMI NGO.

Madame Akie Abe’s first visit to Myanmar was a personal one. Even they didn’t inform the Embassy of Japan in Yangon. I had not informed the MOFA since I wanted her trip to be personal and independent. I only prayed for a smooth trip. I felt relief only after I knew about the trip told by Ko Sein Zaw Than from GMI, who accompanied her.

“She wants to go freely. If it was formal, the host country would make well-preparation in advance, so she would never know the truth. Now she goes where she wants to go, she eats where she wants to eat, and she went to see what she wanted to see. She went to the place where she wanted to stay. She is wearing jeans and walking freely like a tourist. We offer the opportunity for her to see and understand the scenery and spirit of our country deeply”.

We are also the kind of people who are very prepared when they hear the news. So, it’s more practical for them to give their opinions as they see fit. It is fair.

Our Myanmar’s own national characteristics are friendship, benevolence kindness civility, openness, honesty, and patience. Madame Akie Abe seemed very impressed with his eagerness to help. Since that trip to Myanmar, Madame Akie Abe has visited Myanmar several times. Her GMI NGO has donated monastic education school buildings in Myanmar. In addition to that, I have heard that she wrote and submitted a thesis about Myanmar’s monastic education system for her master’s degree. Mr Shinzo Abe served as the Prime Minister of Japan first time from 26-9-2006 to 16-9-2007. Even though he retired later as the Prime Minister, he went to sit in the parliament seat and served as a politician. Along with that, Madame Akie Abe also often praised the women’s events held at our Myanmar embassy, a multi-national dance exhibition organized by ALFS women’s organization. In addition to this, Mr Matsui’s school teacher, Mr Matsui, organized Myanmar and related festivals in Okazaki city. It is also seen that they have given love to Myanmar through the event of donating fire trucks to Myanmar. She always sat down with us and local people to eat Bento’s lunchbox as she was always down-to-earth and sincere.

In our country, Cyclone Nargis struck in 2008. May 2 and 3 were the worst natural disasters in history. A total of 77,738 people were killed and 55,917 were missing. 19,395 people were injured. Many countries have called for relief for various reasons, citing the relief of Cyclone Nargis. We have rescue teams from Japan and Red Cross. The Minister of Foreign Affairs assists to issue visas for the visit of the Deputy Minister to Myanmar. Meanwhile, Madame Akie Abe, who has a strong attachment to Myanmar, has said she would like to donate to the Nargis-affected areas. She is the wife of the former Prime Minister of Japan. As usual, she will go in person and will not even notify the Japanese Embassy in Yangon. That’s why whenever she goes to Myanmar, she goes with a low profile. When she returned, she was asked about her trip through her companions. The road to get to the area was rough because the storm was not at the time. They went there by car, by boats and by trekking adventure also. But I was very grateful for her comments: “The house I went the house in a field. In that house, the surrounding houses were damaged and suffering people were gathered. The tight tent was not enough. But they cooked rice for our group with the little rice they had, fish dishes, and vegetables from the farm. We even received dried shrimp as a gift for us. I think there is only one country in the world.”

We usually meet with Madame Akie Abe at the donation ceremony of GMI NGO as well as on other occasions. Mr Shinzo Abe was acting again as Japan’s longest Post-war Prime Minister from 2012 to 2020. At that time, Madame Akie Abe, the wife of the Prime Minister, came to Myanmar, and she kept a low profile as possible, except in some situations.

I never met again with Mr Shinzo Abe in Japan except for the first meeting between me and him as Chief of Cabinet on 17 May 2006. I came back to Myanmar to retire at the end of 2010.

However, I recall the memory that we met in Yangon once. He paid a friendly visit to Myanmar at the invitation of President U Thein Sein.

At that time, I was a member of the group assigned to welcome Mr Shinzo Abe at Yangon Airport.

He greeted me very pleased when he saw me. “Taishi”-is still in my mind. Taishi means Ambassador in Japan Language.

Under Prime Minister Mr Shinzo Abe, Japan reduced our country’s debt by a billion dollars and provided development assistance and soft loans. Please forgive me that I do not have enough time to write in detail at the moment.

In particular, there are few dignitaries who have a deep understanding of our long history of friendship and relationships. It is very important that there be dignitaries who will carry the relationships between the two countries from one generation to the next.

Among those, Mr Shinzo Abe can be said to be a legendary person. It is not wrong if he is the one who makes the connection between the friendly relationship between the two countries among the generations of his grandfather, his father, and their generation.

Therefore, we are saddened by the death of such a great person, former Prime Minister Mr Shinzo Abe but hopeful that the relationship he built would last for a long time.

Moreover, I wish our own national cultural characteristics, which they respect, could be preserved forever.