Singapore squirms as Burmese protest

Alex Au
Asia Times
19 Oct 07

“Police take a stern view against those who organize and participate in illegal assemblies or processions. It is an offense to do so without a permit.” This sharp warning was carried in the country’s national daily on September 27, 2007 in an attempt to warn off anyone intending to organize marches. The country was not Burma, but Singapore.

A month earlier, on August 25, 2007, 30 to 40 Burmese residents in Singapore had marched two kilometers down Orchard Road, the main shopping street, to a point near the City Hall. They did so to show solidarity with the then-nascent protests in Rangoon over the recent fuel-price hikes. “They just wore ordinary white T-shirts, carried no placards, and no one shouted slogans,” reported an observer. “It was entirely peaceful.” The point was to send pictures back to Burma to encourage their compatriots.

Barely 20 steps from the starting point, the group was intercepted by a police inspector and four or five officers videotaping the participants. The inspector “advised” the participants not to proceed, or else they might face charges. To underline the seriousness of the warning, ID particulars of 23 of the participants were recorded. Despite this, the march continued, only to encounter the same police officers about one kilometer further on, near the presidential palace. Another warning was given.

A week later, at the end of August, the 23 participants received letters from the police requiring them attend police interrogation over this “illegal procession”. They had to make signed statements, and were issued a warning not to participate in any such activities again. Said one of those who was called up, whose name has to be withheld for her own safety, “the police told us: ‘If you do it again, you will be deported immediately’.”

As protests intensified in Burma, with monks joining in and being beaten and arrested for their trouble, Singaporeans too were increasingly moved by events over there. University students began to organize, choosing October 4 to hold a mass event across four campuses.

The police were not far behind. At the Singapore Management University, a 7.30pm peace vigil was set to take place in the open deck on the ground floor of the library building. “At mid-afternoon, the police contacted the Dean of Students telling him that unless we had a permit, the Peace Vigil would be an illegal assembly,” said Mark Myo, one of the organizers. The event thus had to be moved indoors into the library.

Something similar happened at the Kent Ridge campus of the National University of Singapore. The campus newspaper, The Ridge, reported that “appeals were made to hold outdoor vigils”, but the proposal was rejected, “as it is not in keeping with the university culture and may not serve an academic purpose”. In the end, at Kent Ridge, the vigil didn’t take place at all.

The most contentious case could be the battle of wills that took place at the end of September between the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) and the police. The SDP had set up a petition table outside the Myanmar embassy and invited people to come sign two petitions – one to Singapore’s prime minister, the other to the Myanmar ambassador. At one point over 200 people, Singaporeans and Burmese, showed up. They lit candles, stuck messages onto the embassy gates and stayed on peacefully as a gesture of solidarity.

Throughout, the police tried to tell people to leave, videotaping faces in an attempt to scare individuals off. “We advise you to leave; we are investigating this case,” repeated the officer-in-charge ad nauseum. Some left; others moved a little, but still hung around.

At the entrance to St Martin’s Drive, where the embassy was located, more policemen were deployed to prevent people from walking up the narrow road towards the embassy and the petition-signing area. A man named Wunna was among those who tried to enter. “The plainclothes policemen stationed there warned me not to proceed into the road, or else they would investigate,” he said. He decided not to risk it, and turned back.

By then, Singapore’s foreign minister, George Yeo, had already issued a statement on behalf of Asean “demand[ing] that the Myanmar government immediately desist from the use of violence against demonstrators.”

It would hardly do for the Singapore government to engage in similar behaviour. Even short of violence, prosecution and deportation would put them in the same moral basket as the Myanmar military junta.

It is an open secret that the Singapore government and many companies here happily do business with the Myanmar generals. As reported in the newspaper Today, on October 5, “Myanmar’s official data reports Singapore as its second-largest investor with over US$1.57 billion, mostly in the services sector.” Flowing in the other direction are funds connected with the regime, substantial amounts of which are believed to be parked in Singapore banks.

Moreover, the Myanmar generals regularly come to Singapore for medical treatment.

This cozy relationship may explain the fact that police surveillance of the 30,000 – 60,000 strong Burmese community in Singapore has been going on for a long time. Said Aung Naing: “Sometimes, we feel that they are tapping our phones. During one recent conversation with my husband, we heard a woman’s voice in the background.”

Aye Aye, a petite young woman with Burmese activist Aung San Suu Kyi’s face emblazoned on her T-shirt, recalled a police officer telling her once, “We keep records on you.”

Wunna added: “At events such as prayer sessions, birthday celebrations, and the annual water festival, we see police vans nearby.”

Intelligence officers regularly contact organizers of events to find out what they are up to. “Just before the birthday celebrations for Aung San Suu Kyi in June this year,” Wunna recalled, “the intelligence officer contacted one of the organizers with detailed questions about the agenda, what kinds of documents they were going to distribute, and so on.”

That reminded Aung Naing, an engineer with a master’s degree, “The same thing happened just prior to the water festival in April.”

The Burmese community uses a small street beside a Buddhist temple for this festival. Different groups park vehicles along this street, decorated as focal points for their celebrations.

“In 2006, our lorry had a big poster, four feet x six ft, of Aung San Suu Kyi on it. But this year, the police contacted us and told us not to put up her picture,” he said.

His wife chipped in: “We negotiated and thought we could to put up a smaller picture, three ft x five ft.”

But on that day itself, a monk from the temple told them the police had called with a warning that the picture had to be taken down within 30 minutes. “If not, they would come and arrest us,” she recalled the monk saying.

That was April, before the crisis in Burma broke out. Now, with the world’s attention focused on the plight of Burmese deprived of liberties, arresting them in Singapore may prove rather hard to do.

The Singapore government is caught in an acute dilemma. On the one hand, they have to make suitably outraged remarks about the crackdown against demonstrators in Burma; on the other hand, they do not want the Burmese community in Singapore to protest and inspire Singaporeans to take to the streets too. The Lee government’s draconian ban on any kind of street march or protest rally is central to its grip on power.

Another dilemma has to do with the transition that sooner or later will happen in Myanmar. Memories of what happened after the fall of Indonesia’s Suharto, with whom Singapore had been very cozy for decades, are still fresh. Singapore continues to suffer suspicion from the new democratic polity in Jakarta nine years after the dictator’s fall in 1998.

With the rapidly changing situation in Myanmar, Singapore has to walk a fine line between the generals and those arrayed against them.

The SDP’s agility in seizing the issue and championing the cause of the protestors presented another headache. The government would be aghast at the prospect of an opposition party burnishing its credentials as a result of its timely outspokenness.

The government’s response may well be Machiavellian. A few days after the standoff at the embassy, many in the Burmese community received a mysterious sms that warned them not to go to the Myanmar embassy to sign petitions but instead sign petitions at Peninsula Plaza where it was “more effective and safe”. Peninsula Plaza is the shopping mall that serves as the hub of social life for the Burmese community.

Thiha recalled, “We could not recognize the number. We don’t know who sent it.”

In his opinion, “the undercover police approached active members of the community to do a parallel petition.”

Despite that, Thiha said, “I appreciate that the Singapore police, at least, is corruption-free. But I want to suggest that they in turn should appreciate the situation in Burma, and our movement.”

Kyaw Swar, a geologist, thought Singapore should lighten up more. “There should be freedom of expression. Even if a country is small, rights should not be alienated from human beings.”

“They should not deal with the generals,” stressed Thiha, bringing up the subject of medical treatment for them. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was recently on CNN saying that offering the junta leaders medical treatment was only being humanitarian, in keeping with the Hippocratic oath.

“If Osama bin Laden needed medical treatment,” Thiha asked, “will Singapore allow him to come or not?”

Alex Au is an independent social and political commentator, freelance writer and blogger based in Singapore. He often speaks at public forums on politics, culture and gay issues.