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Singapore’s foreign minister has countered concerns over the country’s ties to Myanmar, saying yesterday that there have been no recent defence sales and that economic links are limited.
George Yeo, responding to questions in parliament, also said the country has strict rules against money laundering.
His comments followed the arrest on October 8 of four Singapore Democratic Party members who held a protest to demand official clarification of whether government-linked firms, including defence suppliers, do business with military-run Myanmar.
“I can say that over the years, defence sales to Myanmar have not been substantial and have always been linked to items that are not suitable for countering civilian unrest,” Yeo told parliament.
“There have not been any defence sales to Myanmar in recent years, and going forward we will continue to behave in a responsible manner.”
Singapore is the current chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), and has led regional criticism of the Myanmar junta’s crackdown against anti-government demonstrators led by Buddhist monks last month.
At least 13 people were killed and more than 3,000 detained in the crackdown which sparked global outrage. Yeo said he could not provide details about defence matters but he noted that Myanmar is not subject to a UN arms embargo.
“If there’s any UN sanctions against Myanmar, Singapore will of course abide,” he added.
The US and Europe have strengthened their economic sanctions against Myanmar since the crackdown.
As part of the stepped-up US action announced Friday, three Singapore-linked firms are among seven cut off from the US financial system, the US Treasury Department said.
There was no mention in parliament of the sanctions against the Singapore-linked firms which Myanmar-watchers say are tied to Tay Za, a businessman with close ties to the junta. International Monetary Fund figures show Singapore was the third-largest supplier of imports to Myanmar last year, behind China and Thailand.
But Yeo told parliament that economic links with Myanmar are limited.
“Before the Asian financial crisis we did encourage our businessmen to invest and to do more in Myanmar,” he said.
At that time, he said, there was hope the government would take a path toward constitutional democracy. But such hopes were dashed after 1998, when the Myanmar government “froze” and the economy slid backwards, he said.
Yeo said Myanmar ranked 50th among Singapore’s trading partners.
Government figures show total trade between the two nations was S$1bn ($683mn) – 0.12% of the city-state’s total trade last year.
This was slightly less than the S$742mn directly invested in Myanmar in 2005, according to figures from the city-state.
“On our own, our economic influence is not significant. If we in Asean boycott Myanmar we would lose our moral influence which is not insignificant,” Yeo told parliament.
Human rights activists and other experts on Myanmar disagree, saying Singapore could take economic action against the regime. They allege – without providing direct evidence – that junta funds have flowed into, or at least through Singapore, a regional financial centre.
Yeo told parliament that the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) does not keep track of remittances from Myanmar but he stressed the city-state requires financial institutions to follow strict procedures which include the reporting of suspicious transactions.
“Our rules are vigorously enforced,” he said
Singapore FM: ASEAN Reluctant to Sanction Burma
Voice of America News
23 Oct 07
Singapore’s foreign minister says Southeast Asian nations are reluctant to impose sanctions on Burma because they could further isolate the military-ruled government.
George Yeo said Monday that the sanctions likely would be ineffective and could worsen pre-existing divisions in Burma. He warned that without the military, Burma could dissolve into civil war.
Singapore is the current chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a 10-member group that includes Burma.
U.N. envoy Ibrahim Gambari has visited Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand to lobby them to push for political reconciliation in Burma. He is expected in India Monday, and will visit China before again heading to Burma.
Gambari has suggested the international community should seek an alternative to additional sanctions to encourage change in Burma.
He says incentives could be offered in exchange for democratic reforms, to show Burma’s military rulers the international community is not trying to punish them.
Gambari set out on his Asian tour after Burmese soldiers opened fire in Rangoon last month on thousands of peaceful anti-government protesters, including Buddhist monks.
At least 10 people were killed and thousands arrested in Rangoon and other cities. Pro-democracy activists say the death toll was much higher.