Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said the political situation in Myanmar was “terrible” and pledged to facilitate dialogue and provide humanitarian assistance.
Singapore’s foreign minister said in an interview that progress made by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Myanmar has not been as effective as hoped, with protests and violent repression continuing in the country.
The United Nations and several ASEAN countries, which includes 10 members, have urged Myanmar to restore stability through diplomacy.
“(ASEAN) is not as efficient or fast as we had hoped. This is a difficult situation,” Vivian Balakrishnan told Reuters.
In April, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations announced a five-point consensus aimed at resolving the crisis. As part of these efforts, the bloc appointed Brunei’s second minister for foreign affairs as a special envoy for Myanmar in early August.
Balakrishnan said he hoped there would be progress to report on the envoy’s visit before the ASEAN Leaders Summit in November. But he cautioned that the military must give the envoy access to all stakeholders in order for the visit to be meaningful.
“The main test now will be how they deal with our special envoy,” Balakrishnan said.
The death toll from Myanmar’s February 1 coup has crossed 1,000 this week, according to an activist group the Association for the Assistance of Political Prisoners (AAPP), which has recorded killings at the hands of security forces.
Terrible humanitarian crisis
Since the coup, Myanmar’s economy has collapsed and a humanitarian crisis has worsened in the past month as the number of coronavirus infections soared, overwhelming the health system.
Balakrishnan described the situation as “terrible” and said ASEAN was trying to be constructive, facilitate dialogue and provide humanitarian assistance.
“We have maintained lines of communication,” Balakrishnan said, when asked whether the ASEAN or Singapore had engaged with the shadow government. We are not trying to make things difficult. And we don’t play sideways. But (the military authorities) know we’re going to get everyone involved.”
Singapore is a small but powerful country with economic and political influence in Southeast Asia. Some rights groups say Singapore has influence in Myanmar thanks to its close ties to the state as one of its biggest investors.
The city-state had $24.1 billion in cumulative investment approved there as of 2020, according to Myanmar’s official data, since 1988. This made it the largest source of foreign capital there, ahead of China.
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However, Balakrishnan said, “Singapore’s alleged influence is exaggerated,” because the total also includes multinational companies that have invested in Myanmar.
He said economic sanctions will affect people but their impact is limited on the military authorities, who can better tolerate isolation.
The minister said there had been no discussions within ASEAN on the expulsion or suspension of Myanmar, adding that the bloc wanted to be constructive but did not want to interfere in internal politics.
He was speaking to Reuters two days before US Vice President Kamala Harris visits Vietnam and Singapore. The trip is set to demonstrate that the Biden administration is committed to a “free and open Indo-Pacific” and that the United States is in the region “to stay,” according to a senior administration official.
“We hope to make progress in cooperation, pandemic recovery, digital economy, green economy, and cybersecurity,” Balakrishnan said. “It’s not just comforting diplomacy, there is substantive work to be done.”
Meanwhile, protests continued across Myanmar on Saturday, putting pressure on the military rulers to return the country to democracy.
Social media posts showed protests in Mandalay and Kachin also urging the international community to recognize the national unity shadow government, which is mostly made up of the country’s ousted elected leaders.