Mr Leon Perera: To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs given the escalating developments in Myanmar involving the use of violence by security forces against demonstrators such as the violence seen in Mandalay on 20 February 2021 (a) what concrete steps will ASEAN take to facilitate a return to stability in Myanmar; and (b) what are the immediate and long-term consequences for the region if the situation does not abate.
Mr Louis Ng Kok Kwang: To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs whether Singapore will consider sending another consignment of humanitarian aid to the Rohingya refugees in Cox's Bazaar, Bangladesh, since the efforts to repatriate the Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar have stalled.
1 Mr Speaker, it has been more than a month since the 1 February 2021 detention of Myanmar’s civilian government leaders including President U Win Myint and State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. The situation in Myanmar unfortunately remains fraught with much uncertainty and there remains significant risk of escalation. The United Nations reported that on 3 March alone, 38 people died. MFA has strongly advised all Singaporeans to defer travel to Myanmar at this time, and we have also advised Singaporeans currently in Myanmar to consider leaving as soon as they can by commercial means, whilst flights are still available. I have already spoken extensively on Singapore’s response to these developments in Myanmar, including during my Ministry’s Committee of Supply Debate on 1 March. On 2 March, I joined other ASEAN Foreign Ministers via videoconference for an Informal Ministerial Meeting. At that meeting the representative of Myanmar’s military authorities, Mr Wunna Maung Lwin, also briefed us on his account.
2 Singapore believes that ASEAN should play a constructive role in facilitating a return to normalcy, and hopefully stability in Myanmar, in line with the principles enshrined in the ASEAN Charter. The Chair of ASEAN issued a Statement on 1 February, the very day the NLD government was ousted. The Informal ASEAN Ministerial Meeting, which I referred to earlier, was convened on 2 March 2021. The meeting reaffirmed the practice for ASEAN to discuss important issues of common concern whenever they arise. This meeting was an opportunity to have frank, open, and candid discussions, and to reflect the international community’s concerns directly to the representative of the military authorities.
3 Members would be aware of the media coverage of that meeting. We also provided a full transcript of my intervention during that meeting. The ASEAN Foreign Ministers urged the Myanmar military authorities to exercise the utmost restraint and to refrain from the use of lethal force against unarmed civilians. I conveyed Singapore’s grave concerns over the situation in Myanmar. We are appalled by violence inflicted by security forces against civilians. It is the height of national shame for the armed forces of any country to turn its arms against its own people. The use of lethal force against unarmed civilians is inexcusable under any circumstances. The immediate concern is to step back from a rapidly deteriorating situation. I called on the military authorities to seek a peaceful solution for Myanmar. The alternative is prolonged instability and to quote Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, “an enormous tragic step back” for Myanmar. The military is an institution in the body politic of Myanmar. In fact, the military authorities in Myanmar played a role in Myanmar’s political journey towards democracy in the past decade. It has to reach a modus vivendi with other key stakeholders in Myanmar including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. There remain prospects for a peaceful resolution as long as all sides can come together, engage in genuine and direct dialogue, and find a way to return to Myanmar’s democratic transition. We thus hope that the military authorities will release President Win Myint and State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, so that these discussions can commence. We also support a visit by Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General on Myanmar Ms. Christine Burgener, and hope that she will also be given access during her visit, to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and other NLD leaders.
4 Mr Speaker, if events continue to escalate, it will become even more challenging for all parties in Myanmar to achieve that essential reconciliation. If tensions do not abate, the longer-term stability of our region will also be affected, with potential serious consequences for everyone. There will also be further humanitarian impact given the current severe COVID-19 and economic stresses confronting their people. And do not forget the unresolved resettlement of displaced persons from Rakhine State.
5 Singapore’s assistance to displaced persons from Rakhine State is ongoing. Singapore has contributed over S$1 million in bilateral humanitarian aid to both Bangladesh and Myanmar. We also made contributions through the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management. And reflecting the generosity of Singaporeans, our private sector and community organisations have also stepped up, raising funds to provide for the material needs of those in the refugee camps. Unfortunately the COVID-19 pandemic last year also compromised the delivery of some of this humanitarian assistance.
6 It is important to resume efforts to ensure the safe, voluntary, and dignified repatriation of refugees back to Rakhine State. We have lent strong support towards ASEAN’s efforts to help improve ground conditions in the Rakhine State, such as through the Preliminary Needs Assessment (PNA), and the ASEAN Secretariat’s Ad-Hoc Support Team, which focused on implementing the recommendations of the PNA. These recommendations include priority projects such as the supply of radio receivers to the local community in order to strengthen the dissemination of accurate information. We are prepared to send further consignments of aid and stand ready to support future comprehensive needs assessments once repatriation commences so that we can be more targeted in helping the displaced persons.
7 But at the end of the day, the solution to both the political and humanitarian problems lie within Myanmar itself, and in the hands of its people. We hope to see an outcome that reflects the interests and the will of the people of Myanmar. Singapore and ASEAN hope Myanmar will succeed in its path towards democratic transition and national reconciliation. We will do what we can to support this. But ultimately, only the people of Myanmar, including the Tatmadaw, the NLD, and the diverse ethnic groups – some of whom have armed militias – only they can find a sustainable political solution that is in the best interest of their people. We can only hope that wisdom will prevail. And despite all the bloodshed so far, I still think it is not too late.
Mr Leon Perera: I thank the Foreign Minister for his comprehensive reply and clear condemnation of the situation in Myanmar. I think since I filed this question several days ago, the situation seems to have worsened. I have just one supplementary questions for the Foreign Minister, which is that at the ASEAN level, is this being monitored with a view to keeping all other options open, to nudge the government in Myanmar towards reconciliation, towards political settlement, should the situation worsen even further in the days and weeks ahead? Thank you.
1 The short answer is yes, and the Foreign Ministers are in daily contact with one another.
Mr Louis Ng Kok Kwang: I thank the Minister for his reply. I have raised this issue in Parliament quite a number of times, and I know that the Minister is deeply concerned about the refugees as well. And like him, I have been to the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar and it really is suffering on a scale that is unimaginable. I met many of the children there, many of whom have watched both their fathers and mothers get killed. So I really hope, and I ask MFA to consider sending another consignment of humanitarian aid this year, and that will really help the refugees that are currently in Cox’s Bazar.
1 Mr Speaker, as I said earlier, we would certainly consider additional assistance, but there are many obstacles. And in fact, the more fundamental political and violent events occurring within Myanmar itself complicate any attempts to address this humanitarian disaster. But we will continue to look out for opportunities.
Mr Christopher de Souza: I thank the Minister for Foreign Affairs for his comprehensive answer. My supplementary question refers to two instruments – the ASEAN Charter and the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration. In the discussions with Minister’s counterparts in ASEAN, would reference be made to both those instruments, and the general principles elucidated in those instruments, to have some level of forbearance over the actions of the military in Myanmar? My view is that the actions do go against the whole tenor and principles laid down in the ASEAN Charter and the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration. Thank you.
1 Mr Speaker, in our meetings and discussions, both formal and informal, clear reference has been made to the ASEAN Charter, and of course the question of human rights. But I also want the House to have a realistic assessment of the factors at play. The history of Myanmar over the past 70 years, and I mentioned that earlier this week, is a long and tortured history of a large, wealthy, talented, country unable to come together and achieve national unity, unable to reconcile differences between ethnic groups, political ideologies, and between the different pillars of the political construct that is Myanmar. And again, if you look over the past 70 years, the military authorities in Myanmar, frankly, do not respond to economic sanctions, do not respond to moral opprobrium. And certainly references to the ASEAN Charter and human rights, whilst essential, are not sufficient to change their behaviour. So we do need to be realistic in what we say or do. And I want to emphasise that my key objective – again, perhaps influenced by my medical background – is first, do no harm. Do not raise false hopes, do not incite, and do not encourage further crystallisation of disputes and violence.
2 I say all this so that Singaporeans, both within this House and outside this House, will understand that despite all our fervent and earnest hopes of reconciliation, the keys ultimately lie within Myanmar. There is a limit to how far external pressure will be brought to bear. It does not mean we approve of what they have done, and how they do it, and we are clear in our expressions of disapproval. But let us also be realistic, and let us hope that good sense prevails.
3 There are also profound lessons for us in Singapore, to count our blessings that since independence, that we have been able to come together as one people, regardless of race, language, or religion. We have been able to build a democracy that functions. We have been able to reconcile differences. We really have so much to be thankful for and to count our blessings in Singapore.
MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS
5 MARCH 2021