16 Feb 2021
Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song: To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs (a) whether there has been an increase in the number of requests for consular assistance from Singaporeans in Myanmar following the recent military coup; (b) whether ASEAN will be issuing a joint statement on the situation in Myanmar; and (c) how will these developments impact ASEAN and its relations with major powers in the region.
1 Thank you Mr Speaker. Apart from Mr Giam, Mr Christopher de Souza also asked some questions for written answers. I know the situation in Myanmar is evolving and there may be other Members of Parliament who are following this closely, so I will give somewhat of a more comprehensive answer.
2 The National League for Democracy (NLD) achieved a landslide victory in the November 2020 General Elections. In the early hours of 1 February 2021, the military in Myanmar - the Tatmadaw, detained State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, the President Win Myint, and other leaders of the NLD government. The detentions occurred in the country’s capital just before the new Union Parliament was scheduled to convene. Daw Suu is presently under house arrest. The military has imposed a one-year State of Emergency, formed a State Administration Council, and apparently appointed new Cabinet members. There have been large scale protests against the military, and these protests have taken place across Myanmar. There are media reports that some protestors have been injured, and sadly, one succumbed to her injuries. There were also reports of armed vehicle movements and the deployment of troops in several cities, including clashes between security forces and demonstrators, as well as the arrests of civil servants and students. Internet services have been cut several times, making access to information difficult. In fact, I think right now internet access is disrupted. These are alarming developments. We urge the authorities to exercise utmost restraint to avoid further injuries and loss of lives, and we hope they will take urgent steps to de-escalate the situation. There should be no violence against unarmed civilians, and we hope that there will be peaceful resolution and national reconciliation in Myanmar. In this respect, I also hope that President Win Myint, State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and the other detainees will be released, so that they can engage in discussions and negotiations in good faith. The stakeholders in Myanmar must find a long-term peaceful political solution, including a return to its path of democratic transition. If the situation continues to escalate, there will be serious consequences for Myanmar and indeed for our region.
3 Amidst these escalating tensions, our Embassy in Yangon has maintained regular contact with Singaporeans in Myanmar, particularly those who are e-registered with our Embassy. We have advised Singaporeans in Myanmar to avoid public gatherings and demonstrations, to abide by all local laws and regulations, and to monitor the news closely. There are currently about 500 Singaporeans who have registered with MFA and we urge other Singaporeans who may not yet have registered with us to do so quickly. Given the initial news of airport closures, suspension of flights, and the disruption of mobile and internet services, several Singaporeans have been in contact with our Embassy, including some who were considering returning to Singapore. Yangon International Airport reopened on 4 February, and the regular weekly relief flights between Yangon and Singapore have been able to operate as scheduled. So far, only 17 Singaporeans have chosen to return home on the flights on 5 and 12 February. The situation in Myanmar remains volatile. The suspension of telecommunications connectivity at this time is deeply concerning, especially when access to information is critical. Singaporeans in Myanmar who require consular assistance may have some difficulty reaching us. We thus hope that there would be no further disruptions to mobile and internet connectivity. MFA will continue to maintain close contact with the Singaporean community in Myanmar and we stand ready to render appropriate consular assistance to any Singaporeans in distress.
4 Mr Speaker, our bilateral relations with Myanmar are longstanding, and Myanmar is a key member of ASEAN. Singapore has always upheld the principle that the future of Myanmar has to be determined by her own people. We have supported Myanmar’s difficult democratic transition thus far. We are gravely concerned about the latest developments in Myanmar. Myanmar was already facing serious socio-economic challenges, made worse by the onset of COVID-19 last year, and the continued armed ethnic insurgencies. And of course, Members are familiar with the situation of the refugees from Rakhine State. All these uncertainties, including from the latest developments, not only damaged the prospects for Myanmar, but also damaged the broader stability of our region.
5 ASEAN has a longstanding policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of our Member States. Nevertheless, a Statement was issued quickly by the ASEAN Chair to reflect the seriousness with which ASEAN views the developments in Myanmar. The Statement emphasised and reaffirmed the importance of the principles enshrined in the ASEAN Charter, including adherence to the principles of democracy, the rule of law and good governance, respect for and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms. It also called for dialogue, reconciliation, and the return to normalcy in accordance with the will of the people of Myanmar.
6 All ASEAN Member States are expected to uphold the principles enshrined in the ASEAN Charter and the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration. But ASEAN also operates by the principles of consensus and non-interference in the internal affairs of ASEAN Member States. These are enshrined in the ASEAN Charter. Nevertheless, I believe ASEAN can play a discreet constructive role in facilitating a return to normalcy and stability in Myanmar.
7 ASEAN’s external partners, particularly the major powers, have an important role to play as well. Their perspectives are clear – you would have read the various statements that have been issued in the last two weeks. Engagement, rather than isolation, will go further in ameliorating this crisis. ASEAN will work closely with all its external partners including the United Nations, the US, China, India, Japan, and the EU to foster an inclusive dialogue with all key stakeholders and we encourage Myanmar to return to its path of democratic transition.
8 Unfortunately, the recent political developments in Myanmar will inevitably further complicate the situation in Rakhine State and of the refugees from that state. And therefore it will also inevitably delay efforts to commence the repatriation of displaced persons, considering that we are also dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic which is affecting Myanmar. So it will take time to reach a long-term political solution in Myanmar as well as in Rakhine State in particular, but we do hope that all parties will give due consideration to the urgent humanitarian needs of the displaced persons both in terms of immediate assistance and the need to improve ground conditions in the refugee camps. ASEAN will continue the ongoing implementation of the Preliminary Needs Assessment’s recommendations to improve the plight of these refugees.
Mr Christopher de Souza: I thank the Minister for Foreign Affairs for his comprehensive reply. There are many moving parts of Myanmar - the ASEAN human rights declaration, the ASEAN charter, a potential collective position of ASEAN on the recent developments, and how the military coup will impact the goal of the repatriation of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar. I want to ask the Minister - what are his and MFA’s views on the more strategic aspects of the unfolding developments, especially on the goal of a democratic transition in Myanmar? I appreciate there are many moving parts. But what are the strategic aspects and his predictions, if one can call it that, in light of the military coup ensuing in Myanmar presently?
1 Mr. Speaker, I really do not think I can make predictions. But you have raised several fundamental strategic questions. And with your permission, let me take a step back and go back to first principles. Our starting point has to be that every country’s politics and destiny should be determined by its own people. Just as in Singapore, we will not tolerate foreign interference in our politics. Similarly, we do not seek to interfere in other’s domestic affairs. This is a principle we hold fast to, and in fact, this is a foundational principle of ASEAN.
2 The next point I want to make because many people do not appreciate the many moving parts that you have just described. Let me give you a few facts. Myanmar is the 40th largest country in the world by size, twice the land area of Vietnam. It is resource rich, mineral rich, and has a mostly young, intelligent, hardworking, and disciplined population of 55 million. Many of us here have colleagues or friends from Myanmar, and you would know that these descriptions that I have used are accurate. Their median age is 29. 55% of their people are below the age of 30.
3 If you look at the map, you will also realise that Myanmar occupies a very unique and critical geostrategic location at the crossroads of India, China, Indochina, and in fact, it is also a portal into Southeast Asia as a whole. Both India and China have had a long history of engagement with Myanmar, over millennia. Two hundred years ago, the British Raj battled with the last Burmese dynasty for control of the region around the Bay of Bengal. In fact, the Rakhine State was one of the first areas to fall to the British, and the Burmese were forced to cede that area to the British Raj. This was after the First Anglo-Burmese War. During World War II, Myanmar was a major theatre of operations because of its strategic location. China today shares a border with Myanmar that is more than 2,000km in length. Its trade with Myanmar last year was USD10.2 billion – making China Myanmar’s largest trading partner, larger, in fact, than even its trade with the rest of ASEAN. In short, due to its geography, Myanmar is no stranger to strategic rivalries nor is it unfamiliar with the contest for influence from its larger neighbours. And it has long sought to pursue a realist paradigm and an independent foreign policy. For that reason, I believe Myanmar chose to become part of ASEAN.
4 It is also worth reminding everyone here that Myanmar is a Union, one that since independence – and mind you, at independence they were far ahead of Singapore – but since their independence has struggled to forge a national identity that reflects its ethnic diversity. Racial and religious divisions run deep in a country with eight major national ethnic races, and 135 ethnic groups. It has manifested in multiple, long-running, armed ethnic conflicts. And the refugee situation in Rakhine State, which remains unresolved to this day, is in fact a complex inter-communal issue with deep historical roots going back in time. Given the risk of “balkanisation” – given that milieu – you would understand why Myanmar’s national reconciliation and peace process is so essential and yet so fragile, and any prolonged instability in Myanmar will also affect Southeast Asia.
5 Actually, Myanmar has come a long way in the last decade. You may be aware that Singaporean companies have looked towards Myanmar for economic opportunities, new market access, and to diversify our growth. In fact, Members may be aware that we, Singapore, are the largest foreign investor in Myanmar, and we have cumulative approved investments at USD 24.1 billion as of December 2020. But I think what is interesting is that of that figure I have cited, the major proportion of our investments in Myanmar have in fact occurred in the last five years, under the NLD government. In fact, this period, the last five years, saw a ten-fold increase in Singapore’s direct investments in Myanmar, compared to the preceding five-year period. I want to stress that companies made these investment decisions on commercial grounds. They did not do so because of political influence, or political suggestion on our part. But I believe that the commercial companies saw promising opportunities in a Myanmar that was undergoing democratic transition. I say all these, in order to head off suggestions that we should now interfere, on political grounds, with commercial decisions. But in the same way, I am sure companies making commercial decisions and investment decisions will also pay attention to the political context of the venue in which they are seeking to invest in, and therefore what has just happened is a major setback for its economy, and for its ability to attract foreign investments. The current volatile operating environment, including a report that a foreign national had been arrested, will certainly affect investment outlook and undermine business confidence. Our own businessmen are aware of these downside risks, and I have no doubt that Singaporean businesses are also re-evaluating their risk profile and their exposure to this market.
6 I have had conversations with several counterparts – the US, Germany, and others, and I have urged against widespread sanctions. Let me explain why. The World Bank estimates that around a quarter of the population in Myanmar lives below the poverty line. This has been worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. And so, in all my discussions and phone calls, I have said that we should not embark on widespread, generalised, and indiscriminate sanctions because the people who will suffer most will be the ordinary people in Myanmar.
7 In sum, it is in recognition of this complex collage of historical, geostrategic, economic, and demographic factors that we hope fervently for national reconciliation in Myanmar. And the only way this can happen is if all parties, in good faith, sit down, talk, negotiate and achieve reconciliation. It is in that context that I express my hope that President Win Myint, and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi would be released from detention, so that they can sit down at the negotiating table and talk.
8 One final point. I think Members would be aware that on 5 February the Singapore Police Force felt compelled to warn against holding protests in relation to recent developments in Myanmar. I am referring to protests within Singapore. I want to remind everyone, including foreigners who are visiting, working, or residing in Singapore, that they should not import domestic political issues from other countries into Singapore. This is inimical to our own national interests, and of course, we will deal with this firmly in accordance to the law.
Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song: I thank the Minister for his very comprehensive reply. Regional instability precipitated by events like in Myanmar can and impinge on Singapore's interests. I understand that there's a special meeting of foreign ministers of Southeast Asian nations being called, to discuss the situation in Myanmar. Will Singapore be represented at this meeting, and what are the key objectives that Singapore would like to see achieved at this meeting? Secondly, given that Singapore is one of the largest, in fact the largest foreign investor in Myanmar, does the Singapore Government or Singapore companies, including Temasek-linked companies, have any joint ventures with the Myanmar military and its network of companies? If so, given the high possibility that the US and other Western nations may slap further sanctions on the Myanmar military and its companies, is the Government providing the necessary advice and assistance to companies which may get caught up in this, so that they can reduce their exposure. Thank you.
1 Mr Speaker, so far, there has not yet been a formal meeting convened by the ASEAN foreign ministers. You would realise that the difficulty is you need consensus before the meeting can even take place. Having said that, however, I can assure you that there has been an intense flurry of communications, bilateral and group, amongst the foreign ministers in ASEAN. What is the key objective? Our key objective is to achieve peace, reconciliation, and as I said – to help Myanmar get back on the road of democratic transition. The main thing is not to make things worse, and not to be inflammatory. Second, keep lines of communication open, and keep engagement going. And that is why in that respect, this question of economic sanctions, I think I have explained in my answer just now – that we are not in favour of generalised sanctions which will hurt the ordinary citizens of Myanmar. I have also answered earlier on, our advice to businesses, that you have to take into account political risk, and social and political dynamics before making investment decisions. I am sure all our companies are currently re-evaluating their position. But again, I want to emphasise that it is crucial for us, in both good times and bad times, to maintain this separation between politics and business, and let businesses make commercial decisions and investment decisions on their own merits. And I think this is a good time for us to maintain that discipline. So no, I will not give specific advice to companies, but I will make, to the maximum extent possible, all information available in this House and beyond, so that people can make their own commercial and investment decisions.
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MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS
16 FEBRUARY 2021