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The Options on Myanmar

Updated On: Apr 01, 2010

TODAY, 1 April 2010
by Simon Tay and William Hatch

The decision not to allow iconic Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to participate in elections in Myanmar was bad enough. But the latest news that her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), will also not participate leads many to worry that the vote later this year will be a farce.

Hopes had been raised for an end to the country’s near pariah status. First, Myanmar decided to move ahead with the long delayed Constitutional reform and elections on their self-proclaimed road to democracy. Then, the USA changed policy to engage the regime, although maintaining sanctions. Third, members of the regional group, ASEAN, called persistently for free and fair elections.

Hopes have now dimmed that elections will bring in a new and credible government, whether formed by Aung San Suu Kyi or parties led by those close to the military. In the Saffron Revolution of 2007, when the military used excessive force against monks, the images were more dramatic. But the current situation is no less worrying.

What happens if the elections go ahead but lack competition and credibility? What can and should ASEAN neighbours like Singapore do with the new government? Might flawed elections foment internal instability, as with Iran?

There are implications for ASEAN and for Singapore, which has sometimes been singled out as being close to Myanmar.

While it is true that Singapore engages in investment, aid and technical assistance, it is not a defender or proxy of the regime, and increasingly has offered critical comments. The relationship between the two countries is evolving. Even if Singapore will not join the largely Western chorus of criticism, there is a range of policy options that the government can and should explore in future.

Such options were discussed amongst Singaporean experts, business leaders, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) involved in Myanmar in a roundtable organized by the SIIA.

Some observations may surprise. While Singaporean economic transactions in Myanmar are criticized, their absolute value is small -- less than a quarter of 1% of Singapore’s total trade. For investment, while some Singaporean companies went in early, few are now actively looking to increase their exposure in the country. Instead, there is considerable caution and even notes of pessimism about business prospects there.

On humanitarian efforts, Singapore-based nongovernmental organizations have reported some success in helping people in the wake of Cyclone Nargis in 2008. But they also reported continuing limits to their direct access to citizen groups.

After the Saffron Revolution, there is also a sense that Singaporean public opinion has turned against the regime. There may not be pressure for sanctions, but there is an expectation that the Singaporean leadership should not cosset or be too close to such a regime.  

Going forward, there is a spectrum of policy options, ranging from “proxy” to “principled”. Some businesses and experts suggest that Singapore should implicitly accept the junta’s actions and encourage the full range of business activities as well as government ties, as a “proxy”.

At the other end of the spectrum, some feel that a more “principled” approach should now be taken. This would have Singapore emulate the posture of the US and Europe, with diplomatic disengagement, reduced aid and economic sanctions.

A middle path of pragmatism is also possible. Singapore would continue to work for change, but in a quieter way. Aid, investment, and technical assistance could continue at appropriate levels and for directed causes, while Singapore used an independent voice to encourage reform.

For elections in Myanmar, Singapore has quite consistently called for a credible process and for the participation of all parties, including the NLD. Singapore’s position can effect how ASEAN as a whole responds.

The regional group is diverse, with some like Indonesia pushing actively for change and democracy, while others regard this mainly as a domestic issue for Myanmar.  Myanmar officials attend approximately 250-300 ASEAN meetings each year, at different levels of bureaucracy. Although this has not brought change, ASEAN as well as Singapore can then leverage their increased access to lessen violations of human rights and encourage fundamental tenets of good governance, in keeping with the ASEAN Charter, which Myanmar has accepted.

Singapore’s relationship with Myanmar bilaterally and through ASEAN can make it a significant player. It cannot shift the regime on its own. But what Singapore does can be significant, especially if there is coordination with ASEAN and other significant players, especially China and the USA.

Coordination does not mean that countries would have identical positions. Rather, like an orchestra, different countries can and should use different instruments and play different notes, provided the main theme is consistent.

Simon Tay and William Hatch
About the author: 

Simon Tay is Chairman and William Hatch a researcher at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA). The SIIA has newly released a report, “From Proxy to Principle: Singapore’s Myanmar Policy”, available here.

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