Can Singapore confront the Myanmar dilemma?
By S Preethiba, Senior Editor
More than 3 months have passed since the coup d'état in Myanmar on February 1. The anti-coup demonstrations and military crackdowns that ensued have left more than 700 civilians dead thus far  and caused a humanitarian crisis, with almost a quarter of a million people reported to have been displaced . The U.N. World Food Programme has also warned that the ongoing crisis would result in an additional 3.4 million locals facing hunger in the next three to six months, on top of about 3 million who are already suffering from food shortage .
The anti-coup demonstrators in Myanmar have been demanding the release of Aung San Suu Kyi - who was, until the early hours of February 1, assumed to be the leader of the nation for the next four years - until she and several other members of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party were detained by the military.
The public outcry for the return of Aung San Suu Kyi - and more broadly for the restoration of democracy - comes despite the largely failed efforts of Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD party to improve the nation’s economy and lift the lives of millions of impoverished Burmese. Neither have they been able to put an end to the ethnic insurgencies that have destabilised the nation for a protracted period of time.
Still, the people of Myanmar voted resoundingly in favor of Suu Kyi and her NLD party in the November 2020 elections. Thus, when the military alleged widespread electoral fraud, detained Suu Kyi, and established the State Administrative Council, the people of Myanmar came out in droves to protest against the military general Min Aung Hliang and his military regime.
Similar to past military coups, the recent coup has attracted global attention. Countries in the West have condemned the violence against civilians and have taken concrete measures to put pressure on the military and their finances.
The US, for instance, has imposed heavy sanctions on the military regime, targeting their revenue streams from timber, pearl and gem industries . It has also placed sanctions on state-owned enterprises and on individuals deemed responsible for the coup. The European Union (EU) has taken similar measures, sanctioning individuals and military-controlled companies.
In contrast to these strong-handed measures, responses within Asia, particularly in China and Southeast Asia, have been somewhat muted. China, keen on safeguarding its economic and strategic interests in Myanmar, has “refrained from criticizing the Tatmadaw'' and “avoided even mentioning the bloodshed” .
On the other hand, Southeast Asian countries, especially countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), have found themselves in a quandary. Bounded by the principle of non-interference, which prevents interference in the internal affairs of other member countries, ASEAN members have not been able to muster an appropriate response to the deteriorating situation in Myanmar.
Though ASEAN leaders managed to convene a summit in April to discuss the Myanmar issue, which also saw General Min Aung Hliang in attendance, it had done little to move the needle on the issue thus far. For instance, even though the Myanmar military leader agreed to consider proposals made by ASEAN under the “five-point consensus”, he indicated that this was only possible once the country was stable .
The five-point consensus includes suggestions such as allowing a special ASEAN envoy to facilitate mediation and allowing for a special visit of the envoy and a delegation to meet all parties involved, among other things. Stability, however, seems like a distant goal at present, with persistent violence against civilians and rising tensions between the Tatmadaw and ethnic rebel groups in the remote corners of the country.
Where does Singapore stand in all of this?
Singapore’s response to the coup and the military crackdown of protestors has been nothing out of the ordinary. From the very beginning of the coup, Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan has called on Myanmar’s military government to release the country’s detained civilian leaders including Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, and for the government to cease the use of force against civilians .
Milder, calibrated responses aside, there have been some strong remarks made by both Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan. The former condemned the use of force, calling it “not acceptable” and “disastrous”. Meanwhile, Minister Vivian Balakrishnan called the crackdowns on civilians a “national shame” . Notwithstanding the strong language, Singapore’s response has been largely predictable - one that urges restraint and calls for collective action.
On the other end of the spectrum, there have been voices on the ground for more stringent measures to be implemented by Singapore, particularly from protestors themselves. This is especially because of the high level of engagement between the two countries, most notably in terms of foreign direct investment - Singapore is the largest foreign investor in Myanmar, which stood at more than $350 million USD between October 2020 and January this year .
Protestors were also further enraged when Minister Vivian Balakrishnan rejected the idea of Singapore interfering with business interests on the grounds of politics. His remarks caused a stir on the ground, and led to protests demanding boycotts of Singapore products such as Singapore’s Tiger Beer .
The battle between the ‘can’ and the ‘should’
The crisis unfolding in Myanmar undoubtedly presents a dilemma for Singapore - having to choose between a moral response to the crisis and one that takes into consideration its practical constraints.
On the one hand, increasing death tolls and an unrelenting crisis has sparked fears that Myanmar would become a failed state. This raises the moral question of whether Singapore should do more on a unilateral basis to prevent the escalation of the crisis. Any unilateral action may likely entail getting Singaporean firms to cut ties with the Myanmar military and its associated businesses . However, acting solely on moral grounds without any consideration for the local context also poses a risk to the wider Burmese population.
US sanctions on Myanmar in the 2000s had exactly this impact. While on one hand US sanctions did little to deter the military regime, on the other hand, it had an adverse impact on the Burmese people. As the country’s economy weakened, the military regime’s ability to provide basic education and healthcare was weakened considerably, which resulted in millions of Burmese being pushed below the poverty line.
Conversely, there are also limits to what Singapore can do. Being a member of ASEAN, Singapore is bound by the principle of non-interference as enshrined in the ASEAN charter. As mentioned earlier, this circumscribes its ability to intervene in the domestic affairs of Myanmar.
In essence, non-interference serves to protect the sovereignty of each country in the ASEAN bloc. For Singapore, in particular, being a small state means that it always has a vested interest in abiding by the principle of non-interference so as to ensure that its own sovereignty is protected, and Singapore has always been keen to promote and uphold the tenets of ASEAN.
A prime example of this would be Singapore’s stance during the Vietnam invasion of Cambodia in 1978. As articulated by former Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng at the S Rajaratnam lecture in 2011, the invasion of Cambodia by Vietnam was a “direct challenge to the fundamentals'' of Singapore’s foreign policy . In short, in the eyes of Singapore leaders and diplomats, this incident clearly exemplified realist theory in practice - a large country imposing its will on a smaller country through the unseating of a legitimate, albeit brutal government by force and instituting a proxy government.
Thus, although Singapore was presented with a moral dilemma in the form of a brutal government that was repressing its own people in Cambodia, it stuck by the principle of non-interference and advocated for the delegitimization of the Vietnam-backed regime in Cambodia at the UN. Furthermore, it also played a crucial role in the conclusion of the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements, which marked the end of the Cambodian-Vietnamese war.
Similar to the case of the Cambodia-Vietnam conflict, the Myanmar conflict too is a test of moral dilemma versus principle. And as was the case then, Singapore continues to make the difficult choice of pursuing principle over moral obligation.
Nonetheless, it is important to note that this does not mean that Singapore does not value or consider moral imperatives to be important or significant. Rather, its membership in ASEAN and practical considerations about abiding by its foreign policy principles are constraining factors that limit its ability to respond otherwise.
Is there anything that Singapore can do to help?
Having understood the predicament that Singapore finds itself in, one can thus conclude that there is little that Singapore can do on its own to effect change in Myanmar.
As argued earlier, while Singapore businesses are huge players in Myanmar, the government’s decision to draw a line between politics and business means that using this channel to pressure the military is not likely to be a tool that the Singapore government would use to achieve its ends. However, if the crisis threatens to escalate and takes a turn for the worse, it is possible that businesses might be forced to make decisions unilaterally.
Sanctions too are not an option for Singapore, since it is believed to have adverse effects on the Myanmar economy and the people of Myanmar in the long run. Indeed, Minister Vivian Balakrishnan urged against the widespread imposition of sanctions, noting how it would affect ordinary people the most .
Additionally, ASEAN’s principle of non-interference which Singapore upholds also means that any form of unilateral action by the latter will be inconceivable.
Though Singapore could try to amplify its voice in ASEAN to push the bloc to take a stronger stance against the military regime in Myanmar, this might once again prove to be futile since any individual effort or measure proposed by Singapore needs to be approved by all ASEAN member states as a result of the bloc’s consensus style of decision-making.
In sum, it seems improbable that Singapore might be able to do anything to improve the deepening crisis in Myanmar. All the scenarios considered above point to an impasse, and it is unfortunate that Singapore remains at the sidelines while the people of Myanmar continue to suffer and the country is heading in the direction of state failure.
While it is important to recognise the limitations of Singapore, Singapore’s response to the current crisis definitely does not singularly determine the fate of Myanmar.
The present predicament in Myanmar is both a domestic and international crisis. Domestic actors (the military, civil society and armed ethnic rebels) and international agents need to recognise that the present crisis is not sustainable for Myanmar and the rest of the world in the long run. This recognition will be crucial in facilitating the resolution of the crisis.
Thus, even if temporary respite is achieved through efforts by one actor, establishing long-term peace and stability in Myanmar will only be truly effective via the aggregate efforts of many actors involved.
MFA Press Release: Speech by Former Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng at the S Rajaratnam Lecture at Shangri-La Hotel on Wednesday, 23 November 2011
Preethiba is a Year 3 Political Science and Economics student, and a Senior Editor at The Convergence. She has a keen interest in international relations and current affairs, and hopes that her writing will help to spark curiosity in current affairs in the larger NUS community and readers of The Convergence. When she is not pouring through her readings and trying to balance her crazy workload, she has her nose in books- anything from Singapore literature to memoirs and autobiographies. Apart from this, she is a massive fan of Harry Potter and Liverpool FC (YNWA!).