A Sad State of Affairs

Debt of Honour: Singapore’s Ties to Myanmar’s JuntaBy

Benjamin Cheah

The crisis in Burma is escalating. For the first time in two decades, the people are taking to the streets. It started with protests against the doubling of fuel prices, and the sharp increase in prices of essential goods and services. 1 It has now become a call for democracy, and freedom. The military has seen fit to respond with tear gas, arrests, beatings, and live rounds. State television claims that there are nine dead. Witnesses believe that the true toll lies in the hundreds. 2The source of this turmoil lies with the junta in power. After seizing power in 1962, the then-State Law and Order Restoration Committee embarked on the ‘Burmese Road to Socialism’, an economic policy that has done nothing but to impoverish the people. The people are kept in line through intimidation, systematic rape, arbitrary detention, forced labour, and other tools of state terror. The junta and its cronies virtually control the nation’s wealth, making tremendous profits from sales of drugs, gems, and timber. This combination of poverty, inequality, and repression has exploded into the situation we see today. 3
That the regime was responsible for this is not in doubt. However, it could not have accomplished this without the assistance of other governments. In particular, one country has provided significant economic and military assistance to the junta, enabling it to restore ‘law and order’ while fattening its bank accounts. That nation is the Republic of Singapore.
Above the board, Singapore has done a lot of business with Myanmar. SingTel was the first firm to provide Burmese businesses and government offices with the ability to establish inter- and intra-corporate communications in over 90 countries. At the same time, all computers, software, e-mail services and telecommunications devices in Burma must be licensed, a nearly impossible feat in itself. Coupled with the prohibitively high cost of computers in Burma 3 , and it can be inferred that the regime is intent on denying communications technology to the Burmese political opposition. This act serves to further enrich the Myanmese elites, and strengthen their grip on power.

Singapore invested S$1.57 billion in Myanmar in 2005, making her the largest direct foreign investor from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Since 1988, Singapore has invested about S$2 billion in Myanmar, mostly in tourism and the military. 4 Given that the junta’s cronies virtually control the legal economy, it’s safe to say that these monies have gone into their wallets, and into producing arms and ammunition. A substantial portion of Singapore’s investments has gone into Asia World, a Burmese construction company, which is owned by drug traffickers and money launderers. 3, 4, 5

Lo Hsing Han is the chair of Asia World, founded in 1992. Ostensibly a successful businessman, he has served as ethnic advisor to former Burmese Prime Minister Khin Nyunt, and continues to oversee his drug operations in Burma. It has been alleged that Asia World has been used as a front for drug trafficking. 3, 5 His son, Steven Law, is the firm’s managing director, and runs various other firms, which happen to be subsidiaries of Asia World. 3, 5 He also reportedly handles his father’s financial activities. 3 Steven Law married his Singaporean business partner, Cecilia Ng, in 1996. Using her connections to the government, she allegedly launders money for Burma’s drug barons, in addition to other legitimate business dealings. 3, 5, 6, 7

It has been further reported that Singapore allows Burmese drug barons to travel freely, the junta’s generals to visit Singapore for medical treatment, in addition to turning a blind eye to shady financial practices. 3, 5, 6, 7 There is no doubt that a connection exists between the junta and the government of Singapore.

This is not the end. The Singapore government has armed the regime. Singapore Technologies has built a state-of-the-art cyber warfare centre in Yangon. With it, the regime’s secret police can intercept a spectrum of communications, from telephone calls to faxes to e-mail, from over twenty countries 3, 5, 9, allowing them to keep track of political dissidents. On October 6, 1988, hundreds of mortars, munitions and military supplies were shipped to Yangon. They were marked “Allied Ordnance, Singapore”, which is a subsidiary of Chartered Industries of Singapore3, 8, 9 , now part of ST Engineering. The shipment also included license-built Swedish rockets, violating an agreement with Sweden that required authorisation for arms exports. 3, 9 The following year, Singapore acted as a middleman for a shipment of grenade launchers and anti-tank weapons from Belgium and Israel. 3, 8 In 1992, Singapore brokered a $1.5 million shipment of mortars from Portugal, violating a European Commission arms embargo. 3, 8, 9 In 1995, Chartered Industries of Singapore built an arms factory in Burma, now used to produce weapons for the Burmese military. 9 Singapore has armed the regime.

These incidents are just the ones documented in the public domain. There could have been other shady deals in recent times, one of which could have surfaced to sting Singapore.

On the 27th of September, a Singaporean was shot by Myanmese riot police.10, 11 According to a photograph of a recovered rubber bullet11, there are two legible English words inscribed on it: ‘control’ and ‘rubber’. The official language of Myanmar is Burmese, with little attention paid to the English language; it is therefore highly improbable that the round was made produced locally. Europe and the United States have enforced sanctions against Myanmar, and have no reason to ship non-lethal ammunition to Burma. China, India and Thailand, Myanmar’s largest trading partners, probably would not use English markings on ammunition, because there is little reason to mark ammunition in a language that ordinary workers probably could not read. But Singapore uses English markings on ammunition. Therefore, I suspect that the round was made in Singapore, and exported to Burma. There, it was used to shoot a Singaporean in the leg. If nothing else, this must be poetic injustice.

The Singapore Government has allowed the junta and its cronies to get richer and richer, while the people have to bear with Third World living standards and systematic oppression. Singapore has turned a blind eye to international criminal activity operating out of Myanmar, whose ringleaders visit Singapore every now and then. Most damning of all, Singapore has sold weapons to Burma, the same arms that the authorities use to keep the junta in place. Singapore is therefore indirectly responsible for the current state of affairs in Myanmar.

The world is watching. Singapore currently holds the chairmanship of ASEAN. ASEAN has condemned the junta’s response to the protests. 13 Singapore, in particular, is engaging in ‘quiet diplomacy’, and is backing United Nations envoy Ibrahim Gambari in his attempt to defuse the situation. 14 But this is not nearly enough.

If Singapore truly wishes for an end to the crisis, and is genuinely concerned about the people of Burma, it is her duty to send a strong message to the junta. Singapore must declare, and cease, any and all arms exports to the military regime. Singapore must also impose economic sanctions on Myanmar, in particular targeting strategic resources and supplies destined for the military and the police. Singapore must withdraw all investments in firms linked to the regime, and its cronies. Singapore must also investigate all reports of money laundering on local soil, and prosecute the guilty to the fullest extent of the law. All assets belonging to the junta and its cronies must be frozen. Finally, Singapore must bar the Myanmese drug barons and junta members from setting foot in Singapore. These actions would send a more direct message to the junta than any other action by most other nations.

Singapore owes the people of Burma a debt of honour. Singapore has the means to expunge it. What she needs is the political will to clean up the mess the government has created.

Sources:

1. “Q&a: Protests in Burma.” BBC News. 27 Sept. 2007. 30 Sept. 2007 .
2. “THE TORRENT OF BAD NEWS.” Yangon Thu. 29 Sept. 2007. 30 Sept. 2007 .
3. Kean, Leslie, and Dennis Bernstein. “The Burma-Singapore Axis: Globalizing the Heroin Trade.” Covert Action Quarterly (1998). 28 Sept. 2007 http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Global_Secrets_Lies/BurmaSingapore_Drugs.html
4. “The Associated Press: Foreign Investment in Myanmar Dropped 12 Percent in 2005.” BurmaNet News. 11 Jan. 2006. 28 Sept. 2007 .
5. Ellis, Eric. “Web of Cash, Power, and Cronies.” The Age 29 Sept. 2007. 30 Sept. 2007 .
6. McKenna, Michael. “Singapore’s Hand in Golden Triangle: Australian.” Singapore Angle. 23 Nov. 2005. 28 Sept. 2007 .
7. Casanier, Francois. “Kun Sa’s Surrender, a Narco-Dictatorship in Progress.” Khun Sa’s Surrender, a Narco-Dictat. 13 Jan. 1996. 29 Sept. 2007 .
8. Ashton, William. “Myanmar and Israel Develop Military.” Myanmar and Israel Develop Military. 29 Sept. 2007 .
9. Barnes, William, and Bruce Hawke. “The BurmaNet News: July 23, 1998.” The BurmaNet News. 29 Sept. 2007 .
10. “MFA Says It’s Appalled by Violent Act Towards S’Porean.” The Straits Times 28 Sept. 2007. 28 Sept. 2007 .
11. Htike, Ko. “Ko Htike’s Prosaic Collection.” Ko Htike’s Prosaic Collection. 28 Sept. 2007. 28 Sept. 2007 .
12. DSCF7041.JPG. 28 Sept. 2007 . (From source 11, under post on 28 September)
13. Pereira, Derwin. “Asean Rebukes Myanmar Over Use of Force.” The Straits Times 29 Sept. 2007: 1.
14. Pereira, Derwin. “Important to Avert Violence: George Yeo.” The Straits Times 28 Sept. 2007: 7.

My Take on this:

I fall throughly on the more liberal side of the political spectrum, and as such there is nothing that can condone the current actions of our government. “It’s Just Business” has become the siren call of the Capitalist society, and as a nation that supposedly espouses “Asian Values” it seems that there is an awful lack of values in the way our government deals with this nation. Albeit our policies have so far been engaged in the form of “quiet diplomacy” or “constructive engagement” as the term used by ASEAN. Yes, there is the general belief that one must be able to engage such a regime to try and make them see the error of their ways. But it has become obvious that the Carrot without the Stick makes no progress, makes no change, and our lack of the stick becomes painfully evident. I am shocked by the plight of the Burmese people and appalled by the previous lack of constructiveness in our engagement, one hopes that the future may bring a government that is fully aware, as is evidenced by the events of the past weeks, of the implications of its actions. The United Nations as a body is only able to do so much, Singapore by virtue of being near to this nation must use its leverage to push Burma, and the Burmese government to reform.

We’ve taken the steps required to make action, Mr George Yeo’s choice of words calling Myanmar part of the ASEAN “family” was very much telling, we see them not as criminals, or other wise, but like brothers, or that dirty pervy uncle that hits on your Girl friends at your parties. And the use of such a word is telling because it indicates a lack of will or otherwise to apply sanctions or other such more “hard” measures and I fear that such a simple lack of fortitude will result in Myanmar simply carrying on its own merry way. I am disappointed in this government’s previous actions and can only hope that the future will bring forth the proverbial sticks and stones, not on the benighted people of Myanmar but the people that deign to rule over this country. I still have the hope.

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