Singapore Says ‘Lines of Communication’ Open With Myanmar Junta—but to Say What?

By The Irrawaddy 24 August 2021

Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan, foreign minister of Singapore, acknowledged that the city state is the largest foreign investor in Myanmar, but noted that the bulk of those investments were made when the National League for Democracy (NLD) was in charge, according to Reuters.

Balakrishnan also stressed that investments from Singapore came about due to economic opportunity, not political pressure. “I am making the larger point that there will be investment flows when there is political stability. Now in the current situation, investment flows, I am sure, have dried up.”

Singapore has long been a haven for Myanmar’s top generals and cronies, who frequently fly there for medical treatment or to retire. The late dictator General Ne Win sought medical treatment there, as has previous junta leader Senior General Than Shwe. A number of figures with ties to the dictators have bought residences there.

Critics have said that from the medical tourism of dictators and cronies to former and active drug lords buying up luxury condos for holiday getaways, Myanmar’s well-to-do few have in their own small way helped to fuel the economic success story of Singapore.

Recently, Balakrishnan—who met Myanmar State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi several times before her NLD government was ousted and she was detained by the military on Feb. 1—admitted that regional grouping ASEAN has not been “as effective or as quick as we would have hoped for” in attempting to resolve the conflict, but added that ASEAN and Singapore have maintained “lines of communication” with the junta.

Asked if targeted sanctions might work, Balakrishnan said there was a need to be “realistic”.

“We know from past history that the Tatmadaw [Myanmar’s military] has a very high tolerance for isolation and pain, particularly when the pain is actually borne predominantly by other people,” he told Reuters.

“So again, it comes down to our hope and our encouragement that dialogue, engagement, negotiation, reconciliation, economic reconstruction, making Myanmar attractive again to investments—that is the way out.”

Myanmar and Singapore have a shared history of colonial occupation and a long relationship as Southeast Asian neighbors.

When Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was in power, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong referred to this relationship when he presented her with a gift—a photo of his late father Lee Kuan Yew meeting her mother Daw Khin Kyi, a former ambassador to India, in the 1950s.

Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew was briefly a critic of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in 1996, when he openly said the Myanmar army was the only institution capable of “keeping the country stable and preventing civil war,” and questioned Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s ability “to govern if ever she came to power.”

In fact, the late Gen. Ne Win was an old pal of Lee’s. The two played golf together in Myanmar and Lee touted Myanmar’s potential to become an Asian tiger. He even suggested Ne Win open up the country and promote tourism, but his advice fell on deaf ears. Under Ne Win’s military regime, Myanmar became one of the poorest countries in the world and an international pariah.

In 2007, a leaked US diplomatic cable quoted Lee describing Myanmar’s ruling generals as “stupid” and “dense.”

According to the cable, Lee told US diplomats that dealing with the junta leaders was like “talking to dead people.” He accused the generals of mismanaging the country’s natural resources and said he “had given up on them a decade ago.”

If Balakrishnan, a consummate diplomat, were to speak his mind on Myanmar, would his words echo those of Singapore’s late veteran statesman?

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