SINGAPORE – Singapore rarely uses harsh language or plays a visibly active role in foreign policy as it has faced the growing bloodshed in Myanmar.
Concerns over regional instability and the credibility of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc in the face of China’s growing power are at the forefront of the unusually strong stance taken by the Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). country, according to several analysts.
Another factor is that Singapore is the largest foreign investor in Myanmar, in part thanks to investments from multinationals based in the island republic.
“Singapore realizes that if it does not step in now, having an ASEAN that is relegated to irrelevance is not in its own best interest,” said Chong Ja Ian, professor of political science at the National University of Singapore. Singapore.
The government did not respond to a Reuters request for comment on its role in Myanmar.
Surrounded by much larger neighbors, Singapore has traditionally remained silent in public and embodied ASEAN’s policy of non-interference in the affairs of its neighbors. Myanmar is also a member of the bloc.
He had appeared to follow the same path after the Myanmar military seized power on February 1 and arrested elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, despite the cordial relations established with her by democratic Singapore.
The framing of Singapore’s initial response to the coup was word for word the same as that of Thailand in 2014: “Singapore expresses grave concern … we hope the situation will return to normal as soon as possible.”
The language has changed after the bloody crackdown on anti-junta protests – more than 500 civilians have now been killed.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the use of lethal force was “simply unacceptable” and “disastrous”. Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan called the situation an “ongoing tragedy” and the military repressions “national disgrace”.
Singapore has used this language before after another deadly crackdown on protesters in Myanmar in 2007.
Its response to the exodus of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar in an army offensive, which the United Nations has called a genocidal attack, has been more low-key, analysts say, although it has called it a disaster. humanitarian aid in 2018.
Amid the current crisis, a diplomatic shuttle took Balakrishnan to Brunei, the current president of ASEAN, to Malaysia and to Southeast Asian giant Indonesia to discuss Myanmar.
On Tuesday, he arrived in China for the first time since 2019 to meet with senior government diplomat Wang Yi. Although Myanmar is not on the published agenda, Balakrishnan is seen as highly likely to raise the topic.
“ASEAN really needs to escalate in this current crisis and it needs to escalate fairly quickly,” said Choi Shing Kwok, director of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.
For wealthy Singapore, which has less than 1% of ASEAN’s 650 million inhabitants, being part of the bloc gives it a counterweight to world powers as it tries to strike a balance between being a security partner of states- United without wanting to offend China. ASEAN is also amplifying Singapore’s voice.
“It is essential for the credibility, centrality and relevance of ASEAN to have a point of view, to have a position and to be able to offer constructive assistance to Myanmar,” Balakrishnan said. last week. He said the crisis would take time to resolve but ASEAN had to decide its role.
As the United States and Western countries strongly condemn the junta and impose sanctions on generals and the companies they run, analysts say Southeast Asian countries believe Myanmar may end up moving closer from China – which could alter the regional balance.
“In a situation where one side is more dominant than the other, it reduces the space of autonomy that Singapore can enjoy,” said Chong of the National University of Singapore.
The financial relationship matters too.
Singapore had a cumulative $ 24.1 billion in approved investment in 2020, according to official Myanmar data since 1988. This made it the largest source of foreign capital there during the period – ahead of China. .
While the total includes multinationals, Singaporean companies are also full investors in businesses ranging from real estate to coffee shops.
Some of these companies became boycott targets for protesters after Singapore made clear its opposition to sanctions against Myanmar. Its leaders argue that large-scale measures would only hurt ordinary citizens, not the military.
Instead, Singapore is trying to work with like-minded countries to put pressure on the junta. While Singapore cannot act alone against Myanmar, it could be a force for tougher measures within ASEAN.
“There are other countries within ASEAN that are ready to join in with what Singapore is doing,” said Nehginpao Kipgen of India’s Jindal School of International Affairs. “They would be in a better position to be on the right side of history.”
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