China's recent mediation of talks between Myanmar's ruling junta and three ethnic rebel groups in the country has highlighted a perceived absence of Japan's leadership in addressing the prolonged crisis there, which observers believe has reached a turning point since the 2021 coup.

The mediation, which Beijing said brought a temporary ceasefire between the two sides in the country's northeast, raised questions about Japan's Myanmar policy that primarily deals with the junta without promoting ties with the National Unity Government, the shadow civilian leadership, and its ethnic minority allies, analysts say.

Details of an agreement, such as how long the ceasefire will last and its implications for the whole conflict, remain to be seen. China intervened at a critical juncture, coinciding with the success of a coordinated offensive by the three groups in late October that has emboldened pro-democracy forces nationwide, presenting the most significant challenge to the junta since the coup.

"It will not serve Japan's interest if the government only deals with the junta because a vast majority of the Myanmar people oppose military rule," said Maiko Ichihara, a professor of international relations at Hitotsubashi University, urging Tokyo to engage with the NUG and other anti-coup forces.

"As a country advocating the rule of law and respect for human rights and other universal values under the vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific, I would like Japan to conduct more proactive diplomacy toward Myanmar, a fellow country in Asia," she said in an interview.

Japan condemned the coup but has maintained relations with the military, known as the Tatmadaw, for fear that antagonizing the generals through measures such as slapping targeted sanctions and establishing diplomatic ties with the NUG would push them into China's embrace.

"If Japan does not build ties with pro-democracy forces, it will never have leverage over the Tatmadaw," Ichihara said. "Coup leader Min Aung Hlaing and other generals must be thinking that Japan listens to whatever they say."

She also points to the Myanmar people's generally negative sentiment toward China.

Before Beijing brokered talks between the junta and what is known as the Three Brotherhood Alliance, a sign of a possible policy shift by Tokyo emerged. Zin Mar Aung, the NUG's foreign minister, met informally with senior Foreign Ministry officials during her trip to Japan in late November.

Zin Mar Aung, the first senior NUG official to have visited Japan, did not say who she met, and the ministry made no announcement about the meetings. Unlike the United States and European countries, Japan has no official contacts with the NUG.

Zin Mar Aung, foreign minister of Myanmar's shadow civilian leadership, the National Unity Government, speaks during a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan in Tokyo on Nov. 24, 2023. (Kyodo) ==Kyodo

"Now nearly three years on from the coup, I'm here to tell you that we have not been crushed and defeated, and that we are successfully pushing the military from more and more territory," Zin Mar Aung said at a news conference in Tokyo on Nov. 24.

"Japanese government officials need to know more about what is really happening on the ground and what are aspirations of the Myanmar people," she said, referring to their calls for ending brutal military dictatorship and building a federal democratic union.

Since the coordinated offensive, dubbed "Operation 1027" for its start date, the Tatmadaw has been losing on the ground. One estimate shows it now controls only 25 percent of Myanmar's territory as fighting has spread to over two-thirds of the country.

With a rising number of defections by Tatmadaw troops and a reduced arms supply from Russia in the midst of its war on Ukraine, Min Aung Hlaing on Dec. 4 called on anti-junta forces to solve problems "politically."

Citing widespread corruption in the military, Zin Mar Aung said an increasing number of junta officials have come to realize that the Feb. 1, 2021 putsch -- which ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her democratically elected government -- "is not even protecting their own interest."

"They are questioning the leadership of Min Aung Hlaing," Zin Mar Aung said, adding a total of about 14,000 Tatmadaw soldiers and police officers have surrendered to the NUG and the People's Defense Forces, an armed organization backing the NUG.

Despite China's announcement of a temporary ceasefire on Dec. 14, the situation appears to remain unstable because the three groups -- which operate in partnership with the NUG and the PDF -- pledged to "end dictatorship" and said, "Our dedication remains strong with the entire Myanmar population."

"The Myanmar conflict has reached a 'tipping point,' as we say, since Oct. 27," said Miemie Winn Byrd, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who is now a professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu. "The military is in bad shape."

Referring to Min Aung Hlaing's call for political solutions to the conflict, Byrd said, "Is he sincere about getting into negotiations? This is a question because he has used such tactics in the past to buy time and replenish his military."

She suggested that the Three Brotherhood Alliance, the NUG and other anti-coup forces come up with an enforcement mechanism so the junta will not break any deal it has agreed to.

Recognizing that the war in Ukraine and the crisis in Gaza are also key diplomatic agenda items for Japan, Ichihara urged Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's government -- in coordination with the United States and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations -- to take the lead in bringing peace in Myanmar without leaving such a role to China.

"In this respect, it was significant that Foreign Ministry officials held talks, though informally, with Ms. Zin Mar Aung," she said. "I think regional powers are closely watching how Japan will develop ties with the NUG and ethnic minority groups going forward."

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