Myanmar military coup: S’pore against use of “lethal force” against civilians by security forces “inexcusable”, says Vivian Balakrishnan

The Foreign Minister said that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will hold special Foreign Ministers' meeting on Tuesday to address the situation

The use of lethal weapons against unarmed civilians is inexcusable in all circumstances, said Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan on Monday (1 Mar).

Speaking during the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ (MFA) Committee of Supply debate, Dr Balakrishnan urged the Myanmar military authorities “to exercise the utmost restraint” from deploying “lethal force” and to instead “take immediate steps to deescalate the situation in order to prevent further bloodshed, violence, and death”.

18 lives were lost on Sunday after authorities escalated their violence against protesters using live rounds, rubber bullets, stun grenades and tear gas. Many sustained injuries in the process.

Sunday’s events were part of a string of protests sweeping the country after the military coup and the detention of state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi alongside members of her National League for Democracy party.

Such prolonged instability in Myanmar, he warned, “will have serious consequences” for Myanmar and the larger family of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

All parties in Myanmar should “find a way to return to the path of democratic transition” by negotiating “in good faith to pursue long-term peaceful political solutions”, Dr Balakrishnan reiterated as he has previously said.

“We believe this can only begin if President Win Myint, State Counsellor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi, and the other political detainees are immediately released,” he added.

Hougang SMC MP, Dennis Tan of the Workers’ Party earlier asked the Minister to provide an update on Singapore’s position on the crisis in Myanmar.

“ASEAN’s ability to demonstrate initiative on the Myanmar issue may be key,” said Mr Tan. “We speak about unity and centrality, but that centrality only matters if it is meaningful and can make a difference.”

“This is important because an effective ASEAN helps members like Singapore maintain our autonomy in a platform to make our voices heard,” he added.

Mr Tan stressed that it is “imperative for the Government to bring Singaporeans on board with what it is doing” in order to “support Asean’s ability to play a practical and positive role when faced with an unfolding situation in Myanmar”.

Given that Southeast Asia is also “a focal point or intensifying competition between the United States and China”, two world “superpowers”, Mr Tan cautioned that any inability by ASEAN to address such contentious issues effectively could “spur further contestation among major powers”.

Worse, this may cause “severe and even irreversible divisions in ASEAN in ways that parallel the recent crisis within the Pacific Islands Forum”.

Calls in Myanmar for the boycotting of Singapore firms, Mr Tan noted, began after Dr Balakrishnan’s earlier answer, in which he included a line on separating business and politics.

“Our Government’s views notwithstanding, perceptions in Myanmar and elsewhere in the world may differ, so this has to be sensitively managed,” he stressed.

Dr Balakrishnan noted that a special meeting among ASEAN Foreign Ministers will be convened via video conference on Tuesday, “where we will listen to the representative of the Myanmar military authorities”.

“ASEAN will also work closely with all our external partners to foster an inclusive dialogue with all key stakeholders,” he added, stating that ASEAN’s ability to maintain neutrality could promise “robust” long-term prospects for Singapore and the region as a whole.

“In case people don’t appreciate the use of the word centrality, it’s not just jargon. You see, the choice for Southeast Asia is either we hang together … or for us to become fragmented into a battleground and proxy States. So when we see centrality and integration, these are crucial. All ten members of (ASEAN). All the more so when there is geopolitical instability,” said Dr Balakrishnan.

Crucial for Singapore to maintain “separation between politics and business” in “both good times and bad times”: Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan

Previously on 16 Feb, Dr Balakrishnan said that it is crucial for Singapore, “in both good times and bad times, to maintain the separation between politics and business, and let businesses make commercial decisions, investment decisions on their own merits”.

He was responding to Aljunied GRC MP Gerald Giam, who asked if ASEAN will be issuing a joint statement on the situation in Myanmar and how developments will impact ASEAN and its relations with major powers in the region.

“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 the state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi would be released from detention so that they can sit down at the negotiating table and talk,” he said.

Noting that the recent developments in Myanmar have been alarming, the Minister stressed that there should be no violence against unarmed civilians”.

However, Dr Balakrishnan said he has “urged against widespread sanctions” in his discussions with his counterparts in other countries.

“I’ve said that we should not embark on widespread, generalised and indiscriminate sanctions because the (ones) who will suffer the most, will be the ordinary people in Myanmar,” he stressed.

While Singapore is Myanmar’s largest foreign investor, Dr Balakrishnan said he would refrain from giving companies specific advice, stressing that companies made the investments on commercial grounds and not under any political influence.

“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,” he noted.

Dr Balakrishnan also acknowledged that Singapore is the largest investor in Myanmar and revealed that the country’s cumulative approved investments were at US$24.1 billion as of Dec last year.

However, he claimed that a major proportion of the investments have occurred in the last five years under the NLD government.

In fact, the last five years saw “a ten-fold increase” in Singapore’s direct investments in Myanmar, compared to the preceding five-year period, said Dr Balakrishnan.

“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 Myanmar that were undergoing democratic transition,” he added.

Myanmar’s largest investor: Singapore

Commenting on the military coup, a spokesperson from Enterprise Singapore’s (ESG) told TODAY on 4 Feb that the Singapore government is “deeply concerned” about the latest developments in Myanmar.

“Myanmar and Singapore share close bilateral economic ties, and we have ongoing investment projects and business interests in Myanmar. We will monitor the situation closely,” said the spokesperson.

Singapore was listed as the largest foreign investor in Myanmar by the World Bank last year, accounting for 34 per cent of overall approved investment. Hong Kong came second with 26 per cent.

Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) commitments into Myanmar were worth US$5.5 billion (£4 billion) in the 2020 fiscal year, which ended in September, as reported by BBC.

The Global New Light of Myanmar reported last October that about 20 Singapore-listed enterprises brought in US$1.85 billion into Myanmar in the past financial year 2019-2020, making it the top source of foreign investment in the country.

Hong Kong came second with an estimated capital of US$1.42 billion, followed by Japan with US$760 million worth of investment.

According to a report by Dr Oh Su-Ann –- a visiting fellow with ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute –- in 2019, Singapore’s investment in Myanmar involved 305 firms in total, consisting of Singaporean and Singapore-based enterprises.

Citing ESG’s statistics in 2017, she noted that these companies mainly put investments in the information and communications sector (73 per cent), manufacturing (14 per cent) and real estate (4.6 per cent).

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