Thousands protest Myanmar coup in Tokyo, demand Japan take tougher action

TOKYO (Reuters) - Thousands of Burmese demonstrators gathered outside Japan’s foreign affairs ministry on Wednesday demanding Tokyo join its allies in taking a harder stance against the military coup in Myanmar.

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Wearing red and waving printed photos of Aung San Suu Kyi, a long line of protesters surrounded government buildings in Tokyo, where large political demonstrations are relatively rare.

“Free, free Aung San Suu Kyi, free, free Myanmar,” the crowd chanted in unison while their representatives handed foreign ministry officials a statement that called on Japan to use all of its “political, diplomatic, and economic power” to restore the civilian government in Myanmar.

Japan and Myanmar have long enjoyed close ties, with Tokyo a major aid donor. Japan’s largest companies have been particularly aggressive in expanding business there in recent years, seeing it as Southeast Asia’s last major frontier market.

The Myanmar army seized power on Monday, cutting short an unsteady transition to democracy on the grounds of fraud in last November’s general election, which Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won in a landslide.

Union of Myanmar Citizen Association, which organised the rally, said Japan should not recognise the newly-formed military regime. Nearly 3,000 people were taking part in the protest on Wednesday, the organisers said.

Mathida, a 50-year-old who works in a restaurant in Tokyo, said she joined the protest to push Japanese officials to do more to restore democracy in Myanmar.

“We want our leader and our mother Aung San Suu Kyi to be freed,” she said. “The military is not the government.” She declined to give her full name.

When pressed at a Tuesday news conference if Japan supported or would emphasise the kind of stance that the United States had expressed, including the possibility of sanctions, the government’s top spokesman sidestepped a direct answer, repeating an earlier statement that Japan would keep in close contact with other nations and monitor the situation in Myanmar.

A top defence official told Reuters this week Japan needed to be cautious about its approach towards Myanmar because cutting ties risked pushing the country closer to China.

In contrast, the coup has drawn public condemnation from the United States and other Western countries. Suu Kyi remains in detention despite international calls for her immediate release.

In the biggest public protest against the coup so far, people in the commercial hub of Yangon chanted and banged on metal pots late on Tuesday in a traditional gesture to drive away evil or bad karma.

Additional reporting by Issei Kato and Akira Tomoshige; Editing by Michael Perry