Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan’s Intervention at the Informal ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on 2 March 2021 at 1600hrs

02 March 2021

Thank you Dato Erywan Yusof.


The world is watching developments in Myanmar closely, and how ASEAN approaches the issue will be a stern test of ASEAN’s unity, credibility and relevance.


While Singapore fully supports the principles of non-interference and consensus enshrined in the Charter, it is particularly at times like this that ASEAN must demonstrate our ability to reach a common position on developments right within our own region.


In this respect, Singapore reiterates our support for the Statement issued by the ASEAN Chair on 1 February 2021, which reaffirmed the importance of the principles enshrined in the ASEAN Charter, including adherence to the principles of democracy, the rule of law, good governance as well as respect for and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms. We have also called for dialogue, reconciliation, and the return to normality in accordance with the will of the people of Myanmar.


It is critical that ASEAN continues to reiterate our guiding principles in light of the unfolding tragedy in Myanmar. If not, we will have no choice but to state our views on the situation as individual ASEAN Member States. But quite frankly, this would starkly underscore our lack of unity, and undermine our credibility and relevance as an organisation.


At a national level, Singapore is deeply saddened, and we are gravely concerned about the situation in Myanmar. Over the past weekend, there was a significant escalation in violence across cities in Myanmar, causing many deaths and injuries. We are appalled at the use of lethal force by the Myanmar security forces against demonstrators, many of them young people for simply looking forward to a brighter future. The use of lethal force against unarmed civilians, under any circumstances, is inexcusable.


The immediate priority must be to step back from a rapidly deteriorating situation. It is not too late. Singapore calls on the Myanmar military authorities to publicly commit, in words and in deeds today, to exercise utmost restraint, and to desist from the use of lethal force, and to steadfastly ensure that there is no further violence and bloodshed.


The millions of Myanmar people from all walks of life who have taken to the streets are determined to return their country to democratic governance. They want their voices to be heard. And Singapore, like many countries, hopes to see national reconciliation and stability in Myanmar. We therefore call on the military authorities in the strongest terms to urgently seek a negotiated compromise to the current situation. It is critical for key stakeholders in Myanmar to come together to find a long-term, peaceful political solution which includes a return to Myanmar’s democratic path, taking into account the legitimate interests of all parties. And in this regard, Singapore strongly urges the immediate release of President Win Myint, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and the other political detainees, so that they can engage in direct and meaningful negotiations in good faith.


The current situation in Myanmar is fraught, with significant risk of escalation. But there still remain prospects for a peaceful resolution as long as all sides engage in genuine and direct dialogue. The alternative is prolonged instability and backsliding on the progress that Myanmar had in fact achieved with great effort and with the support and participation of the military since 2011. This will lead to the detriment of the country and your people. If the situation continues to escalate, there will be serious consequences for Myanmar, and ASEAN and our region. ASEAN will face many awkward questions.


Singapore has always upheld the principle that the future of Myanmar must be determined by her own people. We have supported Myanmar’s democratic transition in the last decade and we will continue to do so. We hope to see an outcome that is in accordance with the interests and the will of the people of Myanmar. Singapore has also urged ASEAN’s external partners not to impose broad-based economic sanctions that will harm the ordinary people of Myanmar. This present situation comes at a time of already acute and rapidly escalating COVID-19 and economic distress in Myanmar. There could not be a worse time for this crisis. In the current climate, foreign investors, including in Singapore, are beginning to re-evaluate their investments in Myanmar’s economy. This will inevitably impact the welfare and the livelihood of the people of Myanmar and the long-term development of Myanmar.


Developments in Myanmar should not affect ASEAN’s engagement with our external partners. Over the years, ASEAN as a bloc has consistently demonstrated solidarity with Myanmar by insisting that external partners be open to engaging all ten ASEAN Member States collectively, even when some partners had expressed a strong preference to exclude Myanmar. We have always stood by Myanmar and we have repeatedly urged our partners to engage ASEAN as a whole, and stressed the need for them to engage, rather than isolate, Myanmar.


We hope that Myanmar similarly will reciprocate by not attempting to prevent ASEAN from engaging our external partners at this critical juncture. If ASEAN as a group refuses to engage our external partners, this would force them to find other arrangements to engage the region. This would be a severe blow to ASEAN Centrality, and call our relevance as a grouping into question.


One key example of this is the US. The Biden Administration has already repeatedly expressed its interest to engage us as a region, and I believe we all recognise the importance of ensuring that the US remains engaged with our region. In fact, it was ASEAN that had publicly announced our interest to engage the US barely two months ago at the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Retreat. Therefore, Singapore strongly supports the US’ proposal for an ASEAN-US Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, which should be held as soon as possible.


We also pay heed to efforts by the international community to constructively engage Myanmar. I was late for this meeting because I was on the phone with the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy on Myanmar Christine Schraner Burgener. She has made strenuous efforts to engage the key stakeholders in Myanmar over the past three years. She has always tried to reach out to all sides. Christine Burgener has demonstrated that she understands the complexities of the situation. So, Singapore strongly supports the Special Envoy’s visit to Myanmar and we call upon the Myanmar military authorities to facilitate this visit as soon as possible. So that the Special Envoy can meet all key stakeholders, including President Win Myint and State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.


Singapore has longstanding ties with Myanmar and its people. We earnestly want Myanmar to succeed in its path towards democratic transition and national reconciliation. We hope Myanmar can consider our remarks in this context.


If you go back to the end of the Second World War and consider the state of Southeast Asia 75 years ago, Myanmar was one of the leading nations with the greatest potential in Southeast Asia. With the assassination of General Aung San in 1947, the military coup in 1962, the uprising in 1988, the Saffron Revolution in 2007, and then the military authorities’ realisation that there was no future in that path, and that road to democracy – which in fact was overseen and supported by the military –  Myanmar began this journey over the last ten years. A journey with great promise and a journey that raised expectations amongst the younger generation. More than half of the population of Myanmar are below the age of 30. You would understand why the weight of expectation and hope lies now on the shoulders of the military authorities. I say all this because I hope that the representative of the military authorities will convey this message back to the current military leadership. We just want the best for you and your people. This can only be achieved if you have honest, frank dialogue amongst yourselves in Myanmar. The rest of us cannot do this for you. We can be helpful, we can be constructive, but you need to do this yourself.


So, on that note, let me also say that we support Dato Erywan’s proposal to issue a Chair’s Statement that hopefully captures accurately and comprehensively our discussions today. I hope all participants of this meeting recognise that it would not be credible for us to meet under the scrutiny of the whole world and not be able to issue a statement to convey publicly and officially our views on this distressing and tragic situation in Myanmar occurring right now. To do otherwise would undermine ASEAN’s standing.


Thank you.


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