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Edited Transcript of Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan's Oral Reply to Parliamentary Questions, 2 October 2018

02 October 2018



Mr Louis Ng Kok Kwang: To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs whether Singapore will (i) send another consignment of humanitarian supplies to Bangladesh to provide aid for Rohingya refugees this year and (ii) consider increasing Singapore's financial contribution to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) next year.


Mr Christopher de Souza:  To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs in light of the two reports presented by the UN Fact-Finding Mission in September 2018, how can ASEAN further help to resolve the crisis related to the Rakhine State, which has caused a catastrophic human tragedy in and around Myanmar.


Mr Christopher de Souza:  To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs in light of the two reports presented by the UN Fact-Finding Mission in September 2018, whether Myanmar can be compelled to abide by Articles 14, 15, 22, 28, 31(2), read with Article 2, of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration as well as Article 2, paragraph 2(i), Article 20, paragraph 4 and Article 7, paragraph (2)(e) of the ASEAN Charter.





1 The UN Human Rights Council appointed a Fact-Finding Mission in March last year. This Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar published its full Report on 18 September. This Report contained harrowing accounts of brutal and shocking atrocities committed in the Rakhine State that led to an outflow of refugees to Bangladesh.



2 I just returned from New York yesterday. On 29 September, we had an Informal ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting. And in fact, because this topic was so sensitive, we convened a smaller group consisting of only the Ministers. We expressed our grave concern with these alleged acts of violence that have led to loss of lives, injuries, destruction of homes, and displacement of large numbers of people. And to be brutally honest, this is a man-made humanitarian disaster, and something which should not be happening in this day and age. The Foreign Ministers urged the Myanmar Government that since the Myanmar Government has appointed an Independent Commission of Enquiry, that this Independent Commission of Enquiry should be given a full mandate to investigate, and to hold all those responsible, fully accountable. We also called on both Myanmar and Bangladesh, which have, in fact, signed an agreement in November last year, that they should provide for the voluntary, safe and dignified return of refugees. But to date, not a single refugee has returned under the aegis of that agreement. So we emphasised that a key milestone now must surely be the start or the commencement of a repatriation of refugees to Myanmar. So we are going to have to wait and see, and hope that this will begin shortly.



3 We also urged the Government of Myanmar to step up its implementation of all the recommendations of the Kofi Annan Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, because the root causes of this conflict need to be addressed, and a conducive environment needs to be created, so that all affected communities can rebuild their lives. You need circumstances in which there are opportunities for reconciliation, for assurances of justice and equality, and ultimately, for better prospects for all communities. Otherwise, this long-term, inter-communal, complex situation will fester. And if this festers, it will create more opportunities for extremism, and ultimately terrorism, which will not respect boundaries, and will represent a clear and present threat throughout Southeast Asia and beyond. In the meantime, the refugees in Bangladesh deserve and need assistance. Members will recall that last year, we had sent a consignment of assistance to the refugees in Bangladesh. Depending on an assessment of their future needs, we may have to do so again. In the meantime, I know that the private sector and people sector organisations within Singapore are also sending appropriate assistance to Bangladesh.



4 I want to emphasise that ultimately, the responsibility for resolving this must lie with the Government of Myanmar, and this is a responsibility that we will hold them to account. And they do need to do the right thing for all the vulnerable, defenceless and innocent victims. It is also a salutary warning to all of us in Southeast Asia. Race, language and religion are ‘live’ issues, and can always be exploited for short-term, political gains. But an unfair share of the burden, and of the injuries, are sustained by defenceless people. Thank you.





Mr Christopher De Souza:  I would like to thank the Minister for his insightful answer. This is a catastrophic human tragedy.  Following the UN Fact-Finding Mission Report in September of this year, the UN Human Rights Council took the additional step of deciding to set up a team to investigate further alleged atrocities.  May I ask what Singapore’s position is, on the setting up of this team, and what is ASEAN’s perspective of the alleged atrocities.





Singapore is not currently a Council Member on the UN Human Rights Council. So these decisions, we are not party to. The unfortunate fact is that the Myanmar Government does not recognise or accept the decisions, in particular, with respect to this particular situation. So for instance, the Fact-Finding Mission did not have any cooperation from Myanmar. So all the accounts which are contained in the Report are based on interviews conducted with refugees outside Myanmar. My approach to this is to be practical. And that’s why, we focus on the fact that Myanmar herself has appointed an Independent Commission of Enquiry. In this Independent Commission, are two foreigners – one, a Filipino Ambassador, and another one from Japan. Both of them have reputations for being fiercely independent. So as of now, we are waiting for the Independent Commission to begin its work, submit its report, and we will listen with great interest, particularly to the two independent members of the Commission. I think we have to be practical, and we have to look for every opportunity in which, not to inflame the situation, but nevertheless, can hold people who are responsible, fully accountable. So, let’s wait and see.





Mr Louis Ng:  I thank Minister for the reply. I think in the reply, you said that you were doing an assessment on the ground to send a second consignment to Bangladesh. But can I just check when this assessment will be completed? I understand that US has done their assessment, and just last week, they announced that they will double their aid to the refugees in Bangladesh and Myanmar. I have been on the ground to the refugee camps in Bangladesh. I see what conditions they are living in, I have heard stories in person of how much they have suffered, seen children with bullet wounds who have been scarred for life. And the people there really do need help. I understand that there have been a lot of landslides recently as well. So I am really hopeful that Singapore will provide this second consignment of humanitarian aid. And secondly, the second part of my PQ is also whether we will increase our financial contributions to the UNHCR, so that refugees around the world, we can help them to rebuild their lives.






Well, the answer to the first question is that we are in touch with the Bangladesh Government. At the UN meetings last week, there were several side meetings as well. My sense is there are commitments for additional humanitarian assistance by various countries including, as you quite rightly said, the United States. But my concern goes beyond just humanitarian assistance. You actually need a long-term solution. And a long-term solution is a political solution. In addition to that, you also want to have deterrence from future bouts of violence. And that’s why having Independent Commissions of Enquiry, and that’s why holding people accountable, is important. On your second question on our support for UN High Commissioner for Refugees, we are one of the countries that makes voluntary contributions. And we have raised our contributions in 2016. But I don’t want to over-inflate the importance of that. We will do our part, and we will work with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.





Dr Intan Azura Mocktar:  Thank you Minister. While I understand that we need time to let the Independent Commission of Enquiry take place, but beyond that, Singapore as ASEAN Chair, what else can we do?





I think there was a related question that Mr Christopher De Souza has asked: is there force of law? Can Myanmar be compelled? And the short answer to that, as far as ASEAN is concerned, is no. But what we can do, through moral suasion, through persuasion, through transparency, and keeping this on the agenda. And also, telling the Myanmar Government that we want and hope for a long term viable good outcome, and ASEAN stands ready to help. Specifically, what we said last week to Myanmar, was that we expect the voluntary repatriation to begin soon, and ASEAN stands ready to help facilitate that in any way possible. But I think Members also need to understand that ASEAN is an association that makes decisions by consensus, and once you understand that every decision requires consensus, it effectively means every single country has a veto. So that acts as a constraint to the legal options available. And as I said, in any case, ultimately the long term solution for this is a political solution. And politics must involve discussion, disagreement, dispute resolution if need be, and hoping that in the long run, cool heads will prevail and people will do the right thing. Compulsion, tempting as it is, usually almost never works in these sort of situations.





Ms Denise Phua:   Minister, I totally understand that a long term political solution is needed. But while the rest of the world will debate, and give advice, and coax and persuade through moral suasion, is this something that Singapore or Singaporeans can do more?  I know that it is probably controversial if you want to use tax payers’ money to do more, but can the Government, MCCY or MOE, organise or have local efforts to raise funds so people can contribute to a cause greater than themselves. I thought this would be a great chance for us to look beyond Singapore, what we are blessed with, and really look at how we can contribute to disasters in the world.





I thank the Member for that Supplementary Question. Actually, Singaporeans have been contributing. And it is not just the Government. We typically set aside seed funding. But I think you may be aware that there has been fund raising. And I think that more than a million dollars have been given. And there is probably a lot more that we are not aware of. Singaporeans do care. And they do express their care. Whilst in the totality of it we are probably a drop in the ocean, I wanted to commend the attitude that you have always espoused, in fact, is being practised. I would expect that more assistance will flow, and we will work together with the people sector on this. As I said, this sort of situation should not be happening in this day and age. But it is a stark reminder that we do not live in a perfect world. But let’s not make things worse. That’s why I don’t take an unnecessarily provocative and combative approach to this issue. Second, have sufficient levels of transparency and accountability. Third, address humanitarian assistance in the short term. And fourth, try to promote a longer term political solution. For those of you who go back in history, this problem has been there probably for about 200 years. It is not something that will be resolved even in 200 days. So you do need a sense of realism, and without giving up on hope, and without giving up that sense of solidarity with fellow human beings. So we will continue to do our best.


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