Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Message from the Lion State

The Irrawaddy News

Singapore is home to many Burmese who admire the island state’s economic prosperity.

It’s a two-way relationship, where Singapore, a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), has in the past backed the regime in Burma and strongly defended Asean’s non-interference policy.

Historically, Singapore politicians forged a good relationship with Burma’s ruling elite, including Gen Ne Win.

It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that the current visit to Burma by Singapore senior minister Goh Chok Tong is being closely followed inside and outside Burma.

Goh’s four-day schedule includes talks with senior government leaders and a visit to hospital in the Irrawaddy delta, rebuilt with Singapore aid after the May 2008 cyclone.

The schedule also includes a visit to Shan State, where human rights abuses by the army are widespread. Large numbers of Shan people have been leaving the country because of repression, forced labor and poverty, and many now live illegally in Thailand.

Singaporean officials generally know that Burma is a sensitive issue, and reporters in Rangoon have been warned not to ask political questions when they meet Goh at the Irrawaddy delta hospital.

Details have emerged, however, of Goh’s meeting with top regime leaders, where he urged them not to allow the trial of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi to derail the national reconciliation process, and to ensure that next year’s general election is free and fair.

Goh acknowledged that the trial is Burma’s domestic affair, but he shrewdly pointed out that there is an international element to it that should not be ignored. The generals, it is believed, were taken aback by the strength and unity of international pressure since Suu Kyi was put on trial in Rangoon’s Insein Prison.

Goh also stressed that the elections must be inclusive and that the opposition National League for Democracy, led by Suu Kyi, must be part of the process of national reconciliation. The international community and United Nations have expressed the same policy.

Goh is the first foreign leader to meet Than Shwe since the bizarre trial started, and he used the occasion to deliver a political message to the top leaders in Naypyidaw.

Singapore’s ruling politicians in the past have urged Burma to open up the country’s economy, viewing that country as its hinterland.

When Ne Win was in power, Singapore’s elder statesman Lee Kwan Yew often met the “old man” and offered his advice on reforming the economy. Ne Win, who introduced the “Burmese Way to Socialism,” did not listen.

Lee advised then Prime Minister Maung Maung Kha to open up the country for tourism. To the surprise of Singaporean officials, the prime minister reportedly promised to refer the question to Ne Win.

Under the current Burmese regime, the Burma-Singapore relationship has strengthened still further.

According to Jane's Intelligence Review and defense analysts, Singapore has sent the junta guns, rockets, armored personnel carriers and grenade launchers, allowing the regime to prolong its rule and suppress its ethnic minorities.

Today, Singapore offers a haven for the regime leaders and their business cronies.

Some analysts also believe that family members of the regime avoid Western financial sanctions by keeping bank accounts in Singapore. After the US tightened sanctions still further with the 2008 JADE, the generals’ wives reportedly moved precious stones to Singapore.

Former US President George Bush signed the Burma Jade Act, restricting the import of Burmese gems and other precious stones and extended existing import sanctions.

Members of the generals’ families and business cronies often fly to the Lion State for shopping, recreation and medical treatment. Than Shwe and top army leaders go Singapore for medical care.

Signs of frustration with the regime began to show when it secretly moved its capital to Naypyidaw. Singapore foreign ministry officials expressed dismay publicly because the regime did not inform Asean members about the planned move.

Lee himself criticized the move, describing it as irrational. Calling the Burmese generals “rather dumb” in their management of the Burmese economy, Lee told the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, they were "people with very fixated minds—quite convinced that they will have the natural resources to weather any sanctions."

Lee was also outspoken in his criticism of the regime’s brutal suppression of the September 2007 uprising—a notable departure from his thinking some 10 years earlier, when he said: “I have visited [Burma] and I know that there is only one instrument of government, and that is the army.”

Lee angered Burmese opposition activists still further by saying: “If I were Aung San Suu Kyi, I think I'd rather be behind a fence and be a symbol than be found impotent to lead the country."

Burmese activists in exile burned an effigy of Lee and wrote to him demanding a public apology.

Singapore doesn’t need to be seen as an apologist of the regime, but its government should invest a political will that includes firm diplomatic engagement with the Burmese regime.

It is doubtful the regime leaders will heed Goh’s message, but it is important that Singapore delivered the message and that the generals listened.

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