By Antoni Slodkowski
NAYPYITAW, Myanmar (Reuters) - Japan's new government confirmed its support for the emerging democracy in Myanmar on Thursday when Finance Minister Taro Aso visited the country to reaffirm Japan's intention to cancel debt and help develop a big industrial zone.
Myanmar has implemented rapid economic and political reforms since President Thein Sein's quasi-civilian government took over from a long-ruling military junta in March 2011 and Japan has moved quickly to cement business ties.
Aso, also deputy prime minister, had already arranged the visit, prior to his ministerial appointment after an election last month, in his capacity as a senior member of the Japan-Myanmar Association, a lobby group set up to advance Japanese business interests in the Southeast Asian country.
"Following the change of government in Japan, just like the previous government, we want to maintain a good relationship with Myanmar," Aso told reporters after meeting the president at his palace in the new capital, Naypyitaw.
Senior members of the association with established ties to the former junta have been central to securing a debt waiver and fresh loans for the Thilawa industrial zone.
Thein Sein told Aso his government was delighted a "long-standing and sincere friend of Myanmar" has taken key posts in the cabinet.
Aso reaffirmed Japan's intention to waive part of the 500 billion yen ($5.74 billion) Myanmar owes it in debt.
About 300 billion yen would be waived in two stages in 2013 while a consortium of private Japanese banks led by Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group was working on a bridging loan for the remaining 200 billion, sources familiar with the matter said.
On top of these pledges, Japan's government-linked Bank for International Cooperation will provide a $900 million bridge loan to clear Myanmar's debt arrears with the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank in January, allowing them to restart lending.
Myanmar owes nearly $400 million to the Washington-based World Bank and almost $500 million to the Manila-based ADB.
Japan is Myanmar's largest creditor and the arrears of 300 billion yen had to be cleared before a fresh 50 billion yen loan could be given to develop the planned 2,400-hectare (5,930-acre) Thilawa special economic zone, renovate the country's ailing power plants and develop its regions.
With a land mass as large as Britain and France combined, Myanmar lies in a strategic location, sharing borders with 40 percent of the world's population in India, China, Bangladesh and Thailand.
Thilawa has grown into a flagship project for both Japan and Myanmar and could become a magnet for Japanese manufacturers that have started rethinking investment plans in China after a flare-up in a territorial dispute between Tokyo and Beijing.
A chunk of the 50 billion yen loan, which Japan hopes to implement by the end of March, is likely to mark the first tranche of its lending for infrastructure in Thilawa, which is to be developed by Japanese construction companies.
Over several years Tokyo's lending may add up to $12.6 billion, according to officials familiar with the project.
Mitsubishi Corp., Marubeni Corp. and Sumitomo Corp. form the Japanese side of the joint venture developing the industrial park. The plan is to build the first 400 hectares of the park by 2015 and start luring Japanese and global manufacturers.
Aso will visit Thilawa on Friday.
This is the first overseas trip by a member of the Japanese government that took office last month. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plans to visit Washington around the end of January. ($1 = 87.1700 yen)
(Editing by Alan Raybould and Robert Birsel)