Feature

Myanmar’s Protest Movement

What’s up With Singapore’s Response To the Myanmar Coup?

2021/03/12 ,

Opinion

Kirsten Han

Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

Kirsten Han

Kirsten Han is a freelance journalist and curator of the We, The Citizens newsletter, covering Singapore politics, human rights, civil society, and social justice.

What you need to know

The Singaporean government has denounced Myanmar’s armed forces for using lethal weapons against protesters, but it is unlikely to take action against the military leaders.

Every day brings more nail-biting news from Myanmar. Despite violent crackdown, people are still taking to the streets to protest the February 1 coup. Former members of the Myanmar police have spoken of orders to shoot peaceful protesters. More than 50 people have been shot dead, and nearly 2,000 arrested. As the situation grows desperate, calls for outside intervention are mounting.

As things stand, this intervention isn’t going to come from Singapore. The wealthy Southeast Asian island is Myanmar’s largest foreign investor, and savvy protesters have zeroed in on this connection, calling on Singapore’s financial institutions to stop processing transactions for banks linked to Myanmar’s military. Singaporean companies have been singled out for their business links to the Myanmar military’s commercial arm, with some identified as targets for boycotts. But while other countries have moved to impose sanctions against Myanmar’s armed forces, Singapore has so far resisted implementing such measures.

Singapore has long been criticized for its links to Myanmar’s military junta and its reluctance to take stronger action against human rights abuses. In 2007, for instance, rights groups pointed to big joint ventures between the Myanmar government and Singaporean businesses, and how the island offers a safe haven for junta leaders seeking medical treatment.

Singapore’s more recent statements and comments on Myanmar are about as strong as they’ve ever been. Singapore has not recognized Myanmar’s military regime as the country’s government, but has repeatedly called for national reconciliation to work towards a long-term solution. In early March, Foreign minister Vivian Balakrishnan denounced the armed forces for using lethal weapons against citizens, calling it “the height of national shame.” Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, too, said that violence against civilians is “not acceptable.”

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Photo Credit:Reuters / TPG Images
Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong waves as he arrives at a People’s Action Party branch office, as ballots are being counted during the general election, in Singapore, July 11, 2020.

For some — especially the protesters under attack — such statements seem mostly gestural, the diplomatic equivalent of “thoughts and prayers.” Singapore’s political leaders argue that the actions of outsiders will have little effect on the situation, and that it’s ultimately up to Myanmar to sort itself out. Condemnation, they contend, will simply drive Myanmar into the arms of countries that are willing to turn a blind eye to the abuses and indulge them in return for power and influence. “If you look over the past 70 years, the military authorities in Myanmar, frankly, do not respond to economic sanctions, do not respond to moral opprobrium,” said Balakrishnan earlier this month.

In 2007, Lee described sanctions as “counter-productive.” 14 years later, he’s still opposed to the idea. As he told the BBC:

“Question is, what can make a difference to them, and if you do impose sanctions, who will hurt? It will not be the military, or the Generals who will hurt. It will be the Myanmar population who will hurt. It will deprive them of food, medicine, essentials, and opportunities for education. How does that make things better?”

Instead, Lee hoped for “wisdom” to “prevail”, and for things to eventually get better:

“That has happened before; the riots in 1988, many thousands killed; and there were further violent demonstrations in 2007. These things have happened before. It is bad things. But bad things having happened, I think sense can still eventually prevail. It may take quite a long time, but it can happen. It has happened before.”

Lee’s remarks appear to be referring to widespread sanctions, but protesters are calling for targeted sanctions against the perpetrators of the coup, aimed at depriving them of the finances and other resources that allow them to operate.

In addition to calibrated sanctions, one email template for Singaporeans to write to their elected representatives suggests other actions: Singapore can publicly disclose links between Singapore-based enterprises with the Myanmar military, or impose restrictions on commercial ties with the junta. Elected representatives can also encourage those in the private sector to divest from joint ventures with the Myanmar military. Singapore’s government could tie sanctions to the use of lethal force, punishing the military leaders if they cross the red line. All they need is political will.

Such moves would be aligned with the motivations and strategies of the civil resistance movement in Myanmar: to make it impossible for the junta to operate or properly establish itself as a functioning government. This is why public servants, healthcare staff, railway workers and bankers are core to the Civil Disobedience Movement. While many have gone on strike and openly participated in protests, others have shown up at work but refused to follow instructions. For them, this refusal to cooperate demonstrates their opposition to the coup, making it difficult for the military to build legitimacy and govern the country.

Beyond the Singapore government, these tactics and strategies are likely to come across as unfamiliar to Singaporeans, living as they do in an environment where resistance strategies of this scope and severity haven’t been seen for decades. While government leaders have rejected sanctions, I’ve also seen Singaporeans express scorn or skepticism at the Myanmar protesters’ actions, viewing strikes and demands for foreign investors to divest as incomprehensible acts of self-harm. When protesters began demanding boycotts of Singaporeans brands and companies, some Singaporeans took it as an affront to the country’s national pride; a few of the comments I saw on Facebook even went as far as suggesting that Myanmar nationals working in Singapore should be repatriated since the people of Myanmar are now “anti-Singapore”.

Still, Myanmar’s protesters are not without friends in Singapore. There are about 200,000 Myanmar nationals studying, working, and living in the city-state; even though some might not realize it, Singaporean lives are often deeply interconnected with the fates of their ASEAN neighbors. Young Singaporeans have been active on social media in expressing solidarity with the protesters by spreading their updates and messages. Without state-led reporting processes, a document has been compiled detailing Singapore’s current and historical ties to the Myanmar military, making it easier than ever for Singaporeans to learn about this aspect of our foreign policy. Some have also donated to various activist groups on the ground, sending financial support to union workers, artists, journalists, and community organizers. These actions might pale in scope and reach compared to what governments can do, but if civil resistance movements have taught us anything, it is that one should often put one’s faith in people instead of in power.

READ NEXT: ASEAN Urges Peaceful Solution To Myanmar Coup Standoff

TNL Editor: Bryan Chou (@thenewslensintl)

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Myanmar’s Protest Movement:

From Aye Minh Thant’s groundbreaking report on the day of the coup February 1, to transnational perspectives from Kirsten Han in Singapore and Bryan Chou in Taiwan, we bring together a selection of our coverage of the protest movement in Myanmar.

All feature article