Japanese foundation aims to help Myanmar's minorities through democratisation process
Yohei Sasakawa, Japan's Goodwill Ambassador for the Welfare of the National Races in Myanmar, and chairman of the Nippon Foundation, discusses development in Myanmar with Juarawee Kittisilpa, reporter/anchor of Nation Broadcasting Corporation.
Juarawee Kittisilpa: You were in Myanmar for six days before you came to Thailand. What were your obligations there?
Yohei Sasakawa: The Japanese government and the Japanese people are all ready to support the process of Myanmar's democratisation, especially as the president of Myanmar, U Thein Sein, and [opposition leader] Aung San Suu Kyi have a strong will to unify the country, including every person and all the minority ethnic groups. Taking this into account, we have decided that together we will support the president and Myanmar to solve the problems of the minority groups. Therefore we have accepted this very important obligation. In order to be able to support that, the Japanese government has mandated me as the ambassador for the welfare of the minority groups, because of my long years of work with the minority people in Myanmar, supporting various activities. I have gladly accepted this mandate to act as the ambassador and to help the democratisation of the country.
JK: So both of them [Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi) want unity within the country?
YS: Yes, it is the intention of both President Thein Sein and Madame Aung San Suu Kyi to put this as the highest priority on Myanmar's national agenda. They agree on this point.
JK: In your discussions with President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi, do you see them taking the same direction towards solving the problem of conflicts with the ethnic minorities?
YS: Well, I think when you talk about the road to reconciliation issue, I think the president and Suu Kyi stand in different positions. I say this because, of course, it is the president who will lead the government's activities towards reconciliation with the minority groups; and therefore it is the work and obligation of the government itself. But I'm sure that Suu Kyi also thinks in the same way. She is not in a position to lead the government's efforts to resolve the minority issues.
JK: Why is Japan particularly interested in helping Myanmar to achieve peace between the government and the ethnic minorities?
YS: Thank you for that very good question. As you know, Japan lost the Second World War and the Myanmar, or the Burmese government, as it was then, actually cancelled all the work compensation that Japan offered to Myanmar, or Burma at that time. Also, when Japan was suffering from dire food shortages, they sent us rice and we survived. Actually, I am of that generation that survived on the rice that was sent by Myanmar. Therefore it is normal that we Japanese want to return the kindness of the Burmese people. Today, like the Thailand people, who are very pro-Japanese, we would like to return the kindness and this feeling of friendship and amity towards Japan. This is how we Japanese, many of us, feel today.
JK: How about the progress of the initiatives that the foundation has started in Myanmar? How are they working so far?
YS: We have already been working in Myanmar for approximately 20 years, just as we did in Thailand, especially for the elimination of leprosy. Elimination means there is a standard set by the World Health Organisaton of less than 1 patient per 10,000 of the the population. So in order to achieve that number of patients, here in Thailand, we delivered medicine that provides a cure for leprosy, free of charge, and we also did that in Myanmar even during the days of the military government. And they did wonderful work and were able to achieve the figure of less than 1 patient per 10,000 people. We have been providing this sort of medical and health service through the foundation. The basic principle of the foundation is that in every society there are people who live on the brighter side and, on the other hand, there are people who are marginalised, who live in the shadows of society. Our foundation is based on the principle that we help those who live in the shadows of society. For example, the delivery of medical health services to the ill, solving poverty issues, and helping disabled people.
JK: In the end, the goal for Japan is to create an atmosphere so that Myanmar can achieve peace among and with its ethnic minorities. Do you think that education and healthcare welfare will be an answer to that conflict? What do the people really want?
YS: As you know, Myanmar has not yet become a fully democratic country. But of course, it is only a few months since democratisation really started to take place, and in order for a country to become democratic, we must see to it that every single person will be able to receive the benefits of democratisation. But of course, when a country becomes democratic, the people will think that they must also get the benefits of democracy themselves, and they forget what their obligations are as citizens of a democratic country, and they will always ask for their own rights first.
I think in the process of democratisation, we must actually provide people, especially those living in the remote areas, with the benefits or the fruits of democracy. Of course, in major cities, tourists will come and there'll be lots of investment from overseas; people will become richer and live a better life, but this will not be so for the people in remote areas. It will take time for them to be able to see that democracy is here for them as well. This is not only particular to Myanmar, it's the same for any country that becomes democratic, and people will say: "Look, our country has become democratic, but we haven't seen any changes. We are really dissatisfied with the government; they are not giving us any benefits." That must not happen in any country.
Therefore, I have gone into the regions where the minority ethnic groups are, and I would like to see to it that they see the visible results of democracy as soon as possible. That is the reason why we have built primary schools, delivered medication and mobile clinics, visited people who are ill, and worked on other causes. So, through this visible action by the foundation, and the results it brings, the people in the minority regions will say: "Yes, the government has taken consideration of us too. We too are getting the benefits of democracy."
JK: Can you talk a little bit about the fund of US$8.5 million you have put in for healthcare services in the Karen and Shan states?
YS: Yes, this is the amount that we have invested in the first year. In most places in the world, insurgent or anti-government groups, rarely blow up schools because any parent, and I think anybody with children, would feel that they want to give a good education to their children. Therefore, schools are safe and nobody has really damaged any schools. That is the reason why we have decided to build primary schools.
But we have a unique way of carrying out our project. Normally, any aid organisation will open up a map and look at a village where schools are lacking, and build schools there. But what we do is, we first gather together the villagers and check if they really need a school. And in addition to that, will they cooperate in constructing the school themselves? We then make a judgement based upon the wishes of the villagers before we start anything. So in the end, it will not be a school that is given as a present. It will be their own school, because they built it. And it is very very important that they feel that way. Since the villagers build the schools themselves, we calculate the labour cost and we give them the money according to that calculation; we put it into a fund and use some money that they have saved through their labour, for example, for micro-finance for starting business, buying pigs or chickens, paying a supplementary salary to teachers, or using it for the maintenance of the school building or buying textbooks. So this is the unique way in which the foundation works.
Another activity that we are engaged in is the distribution of medicine. In Myanmar, traditional herbal medicine is very high in quality, so we put together basic medication and deliver it in boxes to different villages. We feel that we also have a very unique way of doing this because we choose housewives to be guardians of these medicine boxes that are placed in each village. The poor people, if they need medicine - for example, if their children have a fever, cold, diarrhea, or stomach ache - can have these traditional medicines to help with the early symptoms. But if they are unable to pay for the medicine, then the richer people in the village will pay for them. In this way we will always be able to treat diseases at the early stage. Parents can stay safe and sound and feel secure that there's always medication for them and their children. We have between 65,000 and 70,000 villages in Myanmar, and we plan to place these medicine boxes in all these villages for the people to use.
Another activity is aimed at villagers and farmers in the mountainous areas. The fields there are not large in size. I talked about traditional medicine, so of course you need herbs and plants for these medicines, so what we're going to do is to speed up the training of farmers to grow herbal plants, because they will have very high value as agricultural products. We will collect all the herbs and plants and use them as the raw materials for the medication boxes that will be given out to the ethnic minority villages. This will bring more profit from agricultural production and I firmly believe that this additional income for the farmers will make a better life for them.
JK: I understand that your term as the goodwill ambassador lasts for one year. What are you determined to achieve by the end of your term?
YS: Of course, our work will not finish within the next 12 months, and my own work will continue for five or 10 years. It is just that system-wise I am ambassador for one term, but I will always continue this work whether I am ambassador or not. It really doesn't matter because we want to work on a long-term basis and will go on for decades.
In order to be able to deliver the fruits of reconciliation as soon as possible, our foundation alone will not be able to improve the welfare of the minority people. We don't think that way. We feel that since our way has been accepted, we are going in the right direction. But we also need collaboration with, and the participation of, the international community, whether it is from the private or public sector. I feel it is very important that we continue with the work we are doing.
JK: Do you foresee any challenges ahead that may hinder the effort to reach lasting peace settlements between the government of Myanmar and the ethnic minorities?
YS: The conflict between the ethnic groups and the government in Myanmar has gone on for many years and has caused lots of people to flee to your country and live under the protection of Thai people. Those people are still suffering very much. We feel that the democratisation process has arrived very quickly, so people in the remote areas, as well as those who have been internally displaced, do not yet fully trust the Nay Pyi Daw government. Honestly, we feel that we really need to bring back trust and create trust amongst the minority people towards the government. We feel that through our activities in the minority regions, we will be able to regain the lost trust, which is a big hindrance. Eventually we want to see people who are internally displaced, or displaced in neighbouring countries, going back to their own villages to live a better life.
JK: Are you in Thailand to meet with ethnic minority leaders based here?
YS: Unfortunately I don't have time on this visit, but I do hope that on my next trip I will be able to meet the leaders of the minority groups and to be able to spend time talking to them.