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Why is the Govt penalising Burmese activists and students? By Leong Sze Hian.

Payback time?

Leong Sze Hian / Columnist

I refer to media reports that at least three Burmese activists were forced to leave Singapore after authorities decided not to review their visas, and that three Burmese Singapore permanent residents (PRs) will not be allowed to re-enter Singapore should they leave as their re-entry permits have not been extended.

Last year, we saw that practically the entire world, including Singapore and all the ASEAN countries, express their abhorrence at the cruel and relentless killing, beating, arrest and torture of tens of thousands of monks and ordinary people in Burma.

There were protests in almost every country in the world. In Singapore, Burmese nationals (of which there has been an estimated number of 100,000 in total), Singaporeans, and expatriates all took part in various peaceful gatherings to protest against the actions of the Burmese military junta.

Even our own students in the tertiary institutions held a Myanmar Peace Awareness Day in October last year to raise awareness of the oppression the Burmese people face. (See TOC’s report).

The ASEAN charter provides for a Human Rights body under article 14 of the charter. The preamble to the charter states:

ADHERING to the principles of democracy, the rule of law and good governance, respect for and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

What message are we sending to the rest of the world by this action especially when Singapore was the Chair of ASEAN until last month?

For those who have to leave Singapore because their visas are not renewed - can they return to Burma? Will their safety and lives be at risk? They may also be unable to obtain residency status in another country, with such short notice of departure. Will they end up as temporary refugees?

Similarly, for the PRs affected, it may be tantamount to being confined in Singapore, as they will not be allowed to return if they leave. If they are unable to obtain residency from another country, they may never be able to leave.

I feel very sorry for these Burmese patriots, who were never charged for breaking any laws in Singapore - whose only crime perhaps was to express their patriotism for their country and solidarity with their fellow citizens and their plight.

By this action, we may be inviting the wrath of human rights organisations, activists, and peoples of the world.

Are we not, in a way, telling the whole world that we support the military junta?

Are we the only country to penalise Burmese protestors in such a manner?

By this action, will Singapore's international reputation as a first world country be affected?

Are we also not adding credence to the International Bar Association's (IBA) 72-page report on human rights and the rule of law in Singapore?

I am very proud of Singapore on our 43rd birthday - whilst the Mas Selamat escape was perhaps an embarassment which was beyond our control, this latest action against the Burmese in Singapore may bring shame to Singapore out of our own doing.

Whilst I may not agree with statements that Western democracies may "not like" Singapore ("Why they hate Singapore", ST, Aug 9), this action may invite more people in the world to "like us" less.

In this connection, perhaps we should all read Straits Times journalist Koh Kian Beng's article, "Patriotism wilts in apathy's harsh glare", ST, Aug 8; which said quite aptly:

"Would enough Singaporeans do as the Myanmar nationals did if Singapore were, touch wood, beset by political instability too?"

One wonders if the Singapore Government had deliberately waited until it handed over the Chairmanship of ASEAN to Thailand in early August before taking the latest actions against the Burmese students.

It would be tremendously sad if this were so. For then the Government's support for the ASEAN Human Rights body is proved to be nothing more than empty talk.

For why would we not renew the Burmeses’ visas, knowing full well the dire consequences they would face if ever they stepped foot in Burma again while the junta is in power?

Is it any wonder why we're always so hated by others?

We must also wonder why our Government allows Burmese generals to seek treatment in Singapore hospitals but is now penalising Burmese students and activists for speaking out against the atrocities meted out by these same generals on its own citizens, including monks.

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Foreign Affairs Minister George Yeo replying to questions in Parliament on October 22, 2007:

However, we could not stay silent when the Government violently cracked down on peaceful demonstrators including Buddhist monks. ASEAN would have lost all credibility otherwise. Developments in Myanmar cast a pall on the entire region and have been raised at the UN Security Council. ASEAN's policy of non-interference cannot be rigidly applied when internal developments in a member country affect the rest of us. This is not the first time that ASEAN is addressing the situation in Myanmar. At the Summit in Singapore in 2000, ASEAN leaders met privately with Myanmar leader Senior General Than Shwe to express their concerns. In 2003, ASEAN Foreign Ministers publicly called on Myanmar to release Aung San Suu Kyi.

The violent suppression of dissent in Myanmar recently has evoked outrage in ASEAN and around the world. As ASEAN Chair, Singapore had to discharge its responsibility. The Prime Minister called all his ASEAN counterparts who agreed with him that ASEAN should issue a strong statement. PM also wrote to Senior General Than Shwe. I was at the United Nations in New York when the situation broke. After settling the ASEAN Charter, the ASEAN Foreign Ministers confronted our Myanmar counterpart. They agreed for me to issue the statement that I read out to the international media in their presence.

There is a lot of anger in Myanmar and among the Myanmar people in Singapore - there are tens of thousands of them here. I met some of them two days ago at the Burmese temple here. There is great frustration…. So there is no way the current situation can go on like this for a long time. There has to be a genuine dialogue. It cannot be a case where the leaders just goes (sic) through the motion so that things will calm down, and then back to status quo ante.

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Additional reporting by Andrew Loh.

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