Japan to give $15.3m in aid to Myanmar minorities

The government intends to extend support worth about 1 billion yen(S$15.3 million) for ethnic minorities in Myanmar in the form of food aid and contributions to the UN refugee office, sources have said.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda will officially announce the program on April 21 when he will meet with Myanmar President Thein Sein in Tokyo, the sources said.

It will be the first full-fledged Japanese government support for ethnic minorities in the Southeast Asian country. The government intends to indirectly support the country's democratization, improving the living standard of ethnic minority groups living in poverty areas.

The government intends to provide about 800 million yen worth of rice and beans to around 328,000 people in cooperation with the World Food Programme.

It will also offer about 200 million yen in contributions to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), an international body that protects and supports refugees caught up in conflicts.

In January, the Myanmar government and the Karen National Union, one of the ethnic rebel groups in the country, reached a basic agreement on a cease-fire, bringing an end to fighting that had continued for about 60 years.

However, other armed rebel groups are still fighting against the government, causing many people to become displaced.

Reconciliation with ethnic minority groups is expected to have a significant effect on the Myanmar government's democratization and reform policies because internal support from the public for the Thein Sein administration will be strengthened if its domestic situation stabilizes and economic conditions improve.

The Japanese government will extend support for Myanmar's ethnic minorities ahead of the United States and European countries. A senior official at the Foreign Ministry said, "It's because problems related to ethnic minorities have become elements of instability for the administration in Myanmar."

In addition to the food aid and refugee support, the Japanese government is considering conducting vocational training programs in areas where ethnic minorities live, and exploiting natural resources such as natural gas.

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