Singapore's leverage in Myanmar 'overestimated': Vivian Balakrishnan

·Editorial Team
·3-min read
Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan arrives to attend ASEAN Foreign Minister Meeting for Rohingya issue in Sedona hotel at Yangon, Myanmar December 19, 2016. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun
Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan arrives to attend ASEAN Foreign Minister Meeting for Rohingya issue in Sedona hotel at Yangon, Myanmar December 19, 2016. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

SINGAPORE — Singapore's leverage with the military junta in Myanmar is "overestimated" despite claims by human rights groups that the regime's generals have investments and bank accounts in the city-state, said Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan on Friday (20 August). 

Speaking in a recent interview with newswire Reuters, Dr Balakrishnan was pressed on whether Singapore had considered freezing these accounts. 

In response, he acknowledged that Singapore is the largest foreign investor in Myanmar, but noted that the bulk of those investments were made when the National League for Democracy was in charge.

"If you speak to both Singapore and MNCs who are based in Singapore, you know as well as I do, that their operations, their teams in Myanmar are now down to a trickle of what they used to do," said the minister. 

Dr Balakrishnan also stressed that investments from Singapore came about due to economic opportunity, not political pressure. "I am making the larger point that there will be investment flows when there is political stability. Now in the current situation, investment flows, I am sure, have dried up."

'Dire' situation in Myanmar

More than six months after the military coup that toppled Myanmar's democratically elected government, the 60-year-old admitted that his assessment of the current situation is "bleak", with the situation "dire". 

"So you are in a situation where there is political turmoil, there is a severe economic crisis, and on top of that, you now have the Delta wave."

On Saturday, the United Nations expressed its concerns as armed conflict and insecurity since 1 February have led to the displacement of more than 210,000 people in various parts of Myanmar. In addition, monsoon flash floods have reportedly impacted more than 125,000 people across the country.

The UN and its humanitarian partners are working to deliver assistance and protection services to a total of 3 million people affected by conflict, violence, natural hazards, and food insecurity.

Separately, mass protests triggered by the coup have been violently put down by the military, with more than 945 killed since 1 February, according to Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).

In close contact with the junta

Acknowledging that Asean has not been "as effective or as quick as we would have hoped for" in attempts to resolve the conflict, Dr Balakrishnan stressed that the regional grouping and Singapore have maintained "lines of communication" with the junta. 

"Throughout all these years, we have always carefully and conscientiously maintained contacts across the political spectrum, regardless of who was in power," he said, adding that he has personally had multiple meetings with Myanmar's leaders Aung San Suu Kyi and Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.  

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also met the latter in Jakarta when he attended the Asean Leaders’ Meeting in April 2021.  

Asked if targeted sanctions might work, Dr Balakrishnan said there was a need to be "realistic". He noted, "We know from past history that the Tatmadaw has a very high tolerance for isolation and pain, particularly when the pain is actually borne predominantly by other people.

"So again, it comes down to our hope and our encouragement that dialogue, engagement, negotiation, reconciliation, economic reconstruction, making Myanmar attractive again to investments – that is the way out." 

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