Australia has suspended its defence cooperation programme with Myanmar and redirected humanitarian aid to non-government organisations, in response to the “escalating violence and rising death toll” in Myanmar, said Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne on Sunday (7 Mar).
Myanmar has been rocked by anti-junta protests since ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi was ousted from power on 1 Feb.
The UN rights office last Thursday said it had corroborated information that at least 54 people have been killed and over 1,700 detained since the military coup.
Following that, Australia released a statement on Sunday announcing its decision to halt defence cooperation with the Myanmar government.
“We will prioritise the most pressing humanitarian and emerging needs and seek to ensure our humanitarian engagement is with and through non-government organisations, not with government or government-related entities.
“Australia’s autonomous sanctions regime already includes an arms embargo that prohibits supplying weapons to Myanmar and targeted sanctions on a number of individuals. We continue to review our sanctions regime,” said Payne.
Australia’s bilateral defence ties with Myanmar’s military are restricted to non-combat areas, such as English-language training, which will be suspended, said the Minister.
“Australia’s development program is also being redirected to the immediate humanitarian needs of the most vulnerable and poor including the Rohingyas and other ethnic minorities,” she asserted.
Payne noted that the country has undertaken extensive consultation with international partners, particularly ASEAN neighbours Japan and India, about its policy settings with regards to Myanmar.
Australia also called for the immediate release of Professor Sean Turnell, an economist and adviser to Suu Kyi, who was detained in Yangon with limited consular access for over 30 days.
“We call for the immediate release of Professor Sean Turnell, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and others who have been arbitrarily detained since 1 February,” Payne added.
“S’pore is perhaps best placed” to offer inducements to Myanmar’s military junta compared to other ASEAN countries due to strong military ties: Academician Andrew Selth
There are multiple reasons why Singapore is in a position to offer Myanmar’s military regime “a number of inducements” as compared to other ASEAN countries, but the city-state seems to prioritise more of its “close strategic partnership” with Myanmar instead of human rights issues, according to Andrew Selth, an Adjunct Professor at the Griffith University in Brisbane, in his policy paper titled “Burma’s secret military partners” which was published in 2000.
In his policy paper, Prof Selth explained the links between the two countries and the “persistent claims” of Myanmar’s military government being “secretly supported” by Singapore arising since the creation of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) in 1988.
Citing New Light of Myanmar’s article in 1997, Prof Selth said a ministerial-level committee was established by both countries in 1993 to “forge mutual benefits in investment, trade and economic sectors”, with technology transfers being most prioritised.
“Since that time, bilateral economic ties have expanded even further. Singapore is now Burma’s largest foreign investor, with over US$1.1 billion committed to more than 50 different projects (mainly in hotels, property development and tourism),” he added.
There were also reports that Singapore has helped to modernise and expand Myanmar’s indigenous defence industries, such as a report by Asia Pacific Media Services Limited which claimed that a Singaporean company had replaced the West German experts at the regime’s defence industrial complex in 1990.
“Ever since they began to surface, these rumours and news media reports, and subsequent claims made in the academic and defence literature, have been consistently denied by the Singapore government,” said the professor.
Prof Selth also pointed out that Singapore was among the ASEAN states that have refused to join in the widespread condemnation of the SLORC for their abuses of human rights, and instead decided to “constructively engage” the military government in 2008 just to avoid pushing Yangon regime “further into the arms of the Chinese”.
“Indeed, it could be argued that concerns about Burma’s growing bilateral relationship with China were a key reason why the ASEAN states permitted Burma to join the association in 1996.
“All ASEAN members have included in their efforts to engage Burma the pursuit of commercial opportunities, and in some cases, modest defence exchanges have occurred, but for Singapore a close (albeit hidden) strategic partnership appears to be a very high priority,” he added.
Nevertheless, Prof Selth believes that “of all the ASEAN countries, Singapore is perhaps best placed to pursue this particular policy”.
This is because Singapore has no laws preventing arms sales and is less likely to face domestic political pressures which had forced Germany to reconsider support for Myanmar’s defence industries in 1988, said the professor.
“Also, there have been occasional bilateral frictions over fishing rights, but Singapore is not one of Burma’s immediate neighbours and therefore does not have to cope with the territorial disputes, refugee outflows and armed incursions which tend to characterise Burma’s difficult relations with Thailand,” he added.
Noting that Singapore has developed one of the region’s most advanced armed forces, Prof Selth said the country is “thus in a position to offer Burma’s military regime and a number of inducements which other ASEAN countries would find very hard to match”.
“In foreign policy terms, Singapore does not seem to give a high priority to human rights issues, including the plight of the ethnic and religious minorities in Burma which has occasionally troubled Muslim ASEAN states like Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei,” he asserted.
Prof Selth also pointed out that Singapore had defended Myanmar at the United Nations (UN) in 1997, when it attempted to weaken a general assembly resolution that criticized Yangon – formerly known as Rangoon – for its harsh treatment of human rights activists.
He cited Leslie Kean’s and Dennis Bernstein’s paper in 1998, which says:
“In an ‘urgent’ letter to the Swedish mission, which was drafting the resolution, Singapore representative Bilahari Kausikan cited ‘progress’ in Burma and said that ‘the majority of your co-sponsors have little or no substantive interests in Myanmar … Our position is different. We have concrete and immediate stakes’.”
“The ‘concrete and immediate stakes’ to which Singapore’s UN permanent representative was referring in 1997 were the country’s economic interests in Burma, which had grown significantly since the introduction of the SLORC’s ‘open door’ policies in 1989,” Prof Selth said.