A matter of complicity: Singapore’s role in Myanmar’s arms trade

A matter of complicity: Singapore’s role in Myanmar’s arms trade

Tom Andrews, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, recently revealed an unsettling picture of the arms trade with Myanmar’s military.

His report underscores Singapore’s role as a significant conduit for spare parts, raw materials, and manufacturing equipment — even as the Singaporean Government emphatically denies any involvement.

Notably, the Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) stands firm on its stance against arms transfers to Myanmar, insisting that the government has neither approved nor participated in such activities.

However, such statements brush past an integral facet of the problem — that is, the reported involvement of various Singaporean entities and banks in facilitating the flow of $254 million USD worth of supplies to Myanmar’s military.

While the Singaporean government’s direct involvement remains unverified, Andrews’ report underscores the worrying issue of entities within the city-state engaged in this lethal commerce.

The MFA’s statement doesn’t seem to challenge the finding that US$254 million worth of supplies was dispatched from various Singaporean entities to the Myanmar military, often involving Singaporean banks.

However, the companies involved remain unnamed in the report, as the Special Rapporteur has chosen to provide time for the Singapore Government and other UN Member States to act.

This issue isn’t new, as Justice for Myanmar (JFM) previously identified 116 companies — 38 of them based in Singapore last year — reportedly involved in arming the Myanmar military since the coup d’etat in February 2021.

Many of these have been complicit since 2017, the year the military junta began its systematic campaign against the Rohingya, culminating in one of the world’s largest refugee crises.

JFM asserts that these companies are complicit in the military’s crimes and calls for their cessation of dealings with the military.

This information, based on leaked procurement documents, highlights Singapore’s unwitting involvement in the junta’s crimes and the danger posed to millions of Myanmar people.

Singapore’s status as a regional financial and trade hub and its historical tolerance of sanctioned Myanmar businessmen, such as Tay Za, bring the city-state’s complicity into sharp focus.

Accused of supplying arms and equipment to the military, Tay Za continues to live and work in Singapore, incorporating several businesses despite initial U.S. sanctions imposed in 2007.

While Singapore, along with most Asian countries, may not support sanctions, its influential role in ASEAN and its significance as a financial hub oblige it to take a proactive stance.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has argued that sanctions would only hurt the people of Myanmar, driving the country closer to China. However, one must question whether indirectly facilitating the junta’s arms trade is any less harmful.

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan’s characterization of the situation in Myanmar as “a tragedy” and his plea for internal resolution, do not diminish Singapore’s involvement and responsibility to prevent the ordinary citizens of Myanmar from being oppressed by the Myanmar military.

Such as the brutal attack on Pazigyi Village in the Sagaing Region on 11 April 2023, which resulted in the death of approximately 170 people, including 40 children, demonstrating the devastating impact of unrestricted arms trade with the Myanmar junta.

In discussions with exiled activists from Myanmar, TOC has learned that, in their view, without support from foreign countries such as China and Russia, the Myanmar junta would not have been able to execute their offensives against the rebels and villages as they have been doing.

As a key player in the region, Singapore must confront the evidence and take decisive action. The city-state must strive for greater oversight of its corporate sector, rigorous regulation, and the enforcement of stricter controls over entities involved in the arms trade, directly or indirectly.

An interesting question that pops up when considering Singapore’s Government’s denial is whether Singapore Technologies and its subsidiaries, which are authorised to handle and supply military hardware considered part of the Government and whether MFA’s reply covers ST’s scope of operation.

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