ASEAN’s Future Depends on Its Response to Myanmar Crisis

By The Irrawaddy 8 April 2021

With the slaughter and rights violations continuing daily in Myanmar, tougher global action is needed. The world has condemned the junta’s barbarous actions and is looking to neighbors China, India, Thailand and ASEAN to mediate and broker a peaceful outcome.

The pressure on ASEAN is mounting. This time, if ASEAN fails to save lives and stop the violence in Myanmar—one of its members—no one will take the bloc seriously.

Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei, which currently serves as the chair of the 10-member ASEAN, and Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin voiced concerns over Myanmar in a joint statement released after their meeting in Bandar Seri Begawan this week.

On Monday, Brunei and Malaysia agreed that ASEAN will hold a special summit in Jakarta to address the Myanmar situation, as harsh crackdowns on anti-coup protesters continue in the country.

The ASEAN meeting was first proposed by Indonesian President Joko Widodo in March. The country has led efforts within ASEAN to seek a peaceful solution to the Myanmar crisis.

Meanwhile, Singapore has also exercised unusually strong language to express its concern over the increasing bloodshed in Myanmar. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the use of lethal force was “just not acceptable” and “disastrous”. Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan called the situation “an unfolding tragedy” and the military crackdowns a “national shame”.

Yet Myanmar citizens feel that Singapore should be doing more. Why?

Singapore is the largest foreign investor in Myanmar’s tourism sector, provides medical care for the regime’s generals and is seen as a financial center for the Myanmar elite. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, Singapore was Myanmar’s largest source of foreign funding last year with US$47.5 million in investments, followed by Russia and Britain.

In fact, Singapore poured a cumulative $24.1 billion in approved investments into Myanmar’s economy between 1988 and 2020, according to official Myanmar data. That makes it the biggest source of foreign capital over the period—outpacing even China.

Although the total includes multinationals, Singaporean firms are also investors in their own right in businesses from real estate to coffee shops.

Many wealthy Myanmar tycoons, generals and other elites have bought residences and are believed to have savings in banks in Singapore. Former dictator General Ne Win sought medical treatment in the city state, as do ex-strongman Senior General Than Shwe and former President U Thein Sein.

Myanmar’s top international airline, Myanmar Airways International, is a joint venture between the Myanmar government and Region Air, a company owned by hotel and property tycoon Ong Beng Seng, one of Singapore’s best-connected businessmen. Yangon’s The Strand Hotel, Myanmar’s top hotel and often compared to Singapore’s Raffles Hotel, is jointly owned by Myanmar’s tourism authorities and Singapore-based General Hotel Management. According to Reuters, the Singapore bourse is also host to the only Myanmar firm listed overseas—Yoma, a real estate firm with close junta links.

In the early 1990s, according to the now defunct Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review and defense analysts, Singapore allegedly shipped tons of ammunition, mortars and other military hardware to the regime (then known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council) at a critical time, and also built a cyber-war center in Rangoon capable of telephone, fax and satellite communications. But that was another era.

Today, Myanmar citizens feel that Singapore, Thailand and several other ASEAN countries could be doing much more to save their lives. If these countries don’t act, they will be accused of ignoring the plight of citizens who are gunned down every day—or even of tacitly supporting the murderous military regime.

It is interesting to note that Singapore’s late minister mentor Lee Kuan Yew was briefly a critic of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

In 1996, Lee said openly that the Myanmar military 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.” If Lee were alive today, he would doubtless seek to correct this statement.

In any case, Lee’s comments led to angry demonstrations outside several Singaporean embassies in the region. Some protesters burned effigies of Lee. The Father of Singapore was told to mind his own business and not to insult the people of Myanmar.

“Mr. Lee is a smart man,” read a statement from Myanmar’s then opposition National League for Democracy in 1996, “but he is not always right.”

Lee golfed with Gen. Ne Win in Yangon in the 1970s and recognized Myanmar’s potential to become an Asian tiger. He urged the dictator to open up the country and promote tourism, but his advice fell on deaf ears.

It took a decade before Lee’s real views of the Myanmar generals came out. In 2007, a leaked US diplomatic cable quoted Lee as describing them 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.”

When Daw Aung San Suu Kyi came to power in 2016, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made friendly gestures and referred to the history of the bilateral relationship in his gift to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi—a photo of his late father Lee Kuan Yew meeting her mother Daw Khin Kyi in the 1950s.

As the current crisis has unfolded, we have seen the city state take a blunter diplomatic line. Balakrishnan has used strong language to send a message across ASEAN and to the junta. And language matters—the legitimacy-hungry generals follow closely the responses of Myanmar’s neighbors to the situation in the country and their brutal crackdown on anti-regime protesters.

Balakrishnan said last week, “It is essential for ASEAN’s credibility, centrality and relevance to have a view, have a position and to be able to offer some constructive assistance to Myanmar.” He said the crisis would take time to resolve, but ASEAN had to decide its role.

Singapore along with Indonesia can play a key role in stopping the violence. It can work with like-minded countries to pressure the junta, as well as with China and the West.

If ASEAN fails to act to stop crimes against humanity and end the attempted and illegitimate coup in Myanmar, other major powers such as the US, Japan and China will step in and compete to play a greater role. More skeptical observers feel that Myanmar is being let down on the international front—not just by superpower rivalry but by ineffectual “middle power” quibbling. There is a danger that, as a result, Myanmar will become a failed state; this instability will have direct consequences for ASEAN and its neighbors. Myanmar is the weakest link in ASEAN’s “centrality” and its promise to maintain peace and promote prosperity. It is time for ASEAN to intervene in Myanmar’s crisis.

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