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Suu Kyi Visit Highlights Japan's Myanmar Push

By Elaine Kurtenbach

TOKYO -- Japan's long-deferred aspirations for a larger role in Myanmar are getting a boost this coming week with a visit by Nobel Peace Prize laureate and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The visit by Suu Kyi, in Japan for the first time in 27 years, is highlighting Japan's interest in helping to craft a blueprint for Myanmar's economy and tapping its growth potential.

So far, Japan's investments and involvement lag far behind those of China and India. But that is fast changing, after Tokyo forgave about half of Myanmar's more than $6 billion dollars in debt, clearing the way for renewed international lending to the impoverished Southeast Asian country.

A high-powered delegation of business leaders, including top executives from Toyota Motor (NOK), Hitachi (HIT) and Sumitomo Chemical, toured Myanmar, also known as Burma, in February and pledged to cooperate in encouraging more investment.

Although Suu Kyi is not in government, she is widely respected, especially in Japan, where she is expected to meet with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other top officials and give speeches at two of Japan's most prestigious universities during her seven day visit that starts Saturday.

"Aside from being the opposition leader and an icon for democracy and political freedom, she is a goodwill ambassador. The idea is to encourage the Japanese government and corporate Japan to support Myanmar," said Jeff Kingston, a professor at Tokyo's Temple University.

The handover of power by Myanmar's military junta in 2011 to a nominally civilian government ushered in sweeping political and economic reforms, including releasing prominent political prisoners and allowing Suu Kyi, who spent years under house arrest, to run in parliamentary by-elections.

As of late February, Japan was the 11th largest investor in Myanmar, with $270 million in overall investments, way behind the $14.2 billion committed by China and $9.6 billion by Thailand, the top two sources with 33% and 23%, respectively, of total foreign direct investment.

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