Myanmar is facing a fresh scolding from ASEAN summit host Singapore but ties between the two nations run deep, with the city-state acting as doctor and alleged banker to the junta’s ageing generals.
Singapore earned international praise for leading the 10-member regional bloc’s condemnation of Myanmar’s bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in September, expressing “revulsion” at the use of deadly force there.
Two months on, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and especially Singapore, which will welcome leaders for their annual gathering from Sunday, is under pressure to match the tough words with action.
The city-state, whose hospitals are among the best in the region, has for years provided medical care to Myanmar’s top brass, among them junta leader Senior General Than Shwe and the late prime minister Soe Win.
Soe Win spent months at a Singapore hospital this year before flying home, where state media said he died in October.
But the harsh glare of the international spotlight has recently turned to Singapore’s business and alleged banking ties with the secretive junta.
“Singapore has been the favourite place for them to stash their money,” said Debbie Stothard of the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma, a human rights group.
“If Singapore actually decided to freeze their assets… that would paralyse the regime overnight.”
Verification of individual accounts here is difficult because of Singapore’s strict bank secrecy laws, analysts say.
In an interview with The Straits Times newspaper last month, Foreign Minister George Yeo said Myanmar’s neighbours “can’t do what the big powers can do in terms of trade embargo or freezing bank accounts.”
Officials led by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong have strongly denied allegations that the city-state allows its banks to keep illicit funds on behalf of Myanmar’s military rulers.
Yeo told parliament last month that the de facto central bank, the Monetary Authority of Singapore, does not track the amount of money remitted into or out of Singapore by any country.
But the bank “operates a strict and rigorous regime against money laundering,” Yeo said, stressing that if there were any links with illicit activity, the central bank would “not hesitate to take action.”
In terms of business links, International Monetary Fund figures show Singapore was the third-largest supplier of imports to Myanmar last year, behind China and Thailand.
Yeo says Singapore has limited economic influence over Myanmar.
“Generally speaking, our businessmen are not doing well in Myanmar and many regret having invested there,” Yeo said.
The foreign minister also said Singapore has not made any defence sales to Myanmar in recent years, qualifying previous sales as insignificant and involving items “not suitable for countering civilian unrest.”
Singapore property developer Keppel Land manages two hotels in Myanmar, and Myanmar state media say a Singapore company is among the energy firms jointly exploring for oil and gas in the impoverished country’s northeast.
The city-state’s three homegrown banks have representative offices in Myanmar.
Dave Mathieson, a consultant to Human Rights Watch in Bangkok, said Singapore got a “wake-up call” when the United States last month announced new sanctions on Myanmar, with three Singapore-linked firms in their sights.
All three are linked to Myanmar national Tay Za, who observers say is a close associate of the junta.
“It’s about time the US did something like that,” Mathieson said, calling on Singapore to take action as well.
Zaid Ibrahim, president of the ASEAN Caucus on Burma, a parliamentary group, urged Singapore and other ASEAN states to take individual action.
“I’m looking for one country in ASEAN that stands up for democracy,” Zaid told Singapore lawmakers during a recent forum.
“Why can’t Singapore do something to show your displeasure?”