The keys to reconciliation in the face of a worsening political situation lie within Myanmar itself and in the hands of its people, said Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan yesterday, calling it "the height of national shame for the armed forces of any country to turn its arms against its own people".
Civilian protests against the Feb 1 military coup have led to deadly clashes with security forces nationwide, leaving at least 54 killed and over a thousand people arrested.
"There's a limit to how far external pressure will be brought to bear," Dr Balakrishnan said in Parliament in response to Mr Leon Perera (Aljunied GRC), who asked what concrete steps Asean could take to address the turmoil in Myanmar after its military - the Tatmadaw - seized power and detained elected government leader Aung San Suu Kyi and members of her National League for Democracy (NLD) party.
Said the minister: "It doesn't mean we approve of what they have done and how they do it. And we are clear in our expressions of disapproval. But let us also be realistic."
"Ultimately, only the people of Myanmar, including the armed forces, the Tatmadaw, the NLD, and the diverse ethnic groups - some of whom have armed militias - only they can find a sustainable political solution that is in the best interests of their people."
Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Thursday urged citizens to avoid travelling to Myanmar, with the situation remaining fraught with uncertainty and carrying significant risk of escalation.
Dr Balakrishnan said yesterday that Singaporeans currently in Myanmar should "consider leaving as soon as they can by commercial means, whilst flights are still available".
He reminded the House that Asean countries had met on Tuesday to reflect the international community's concerns directly to representatives of Myanmar's military authorities, and that the foreign ministers from the region had urged them to desist from violence and to respect the will of the Myanmar people.
Dr Balakrishnan noted that the military, as an institution in the body politic of Myanmar, had played a role in the country's political journey towards democracy in the past decade. It was the armed forces that drafted a Constitution in 2008, paving the way for elections in 2010. Myanmar has gone to the polls three times since, most recently last November.
"There remains prospect for a peaceful resolution as long as all sides can come together, engage in genuine and direct dialogue, and find a way to return to Myanmar's democratic transition," he said.
Dr Balakrishnan hoped the United Nations special envoy on Myanmar, Ms Christine Schraner Burgener, would be given access to Ms Suu Kyi and other NLD leaders in a visit to Myanmar.
"If tensions do not abate, the longer-term stability of our region will also be affected, with potential serious consequences for everyone," he said.
Mr Perera then asked if the Asean countries were keeping "all other options open" in nudging the government in Myanmar towards reconciliation and political settlement, should the situation worsen.
Dr Balakrishnan replied in the affirmative and added that the Asean foreign ministers were in daily contact with one another.
Mr Christopher de Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) also asked if the Asean Charter and Asean Human Rights Declaration were brought up in the grouping's discussions over Myanmar.
Dr Balakrishnan said that while these instruments were referenced, it was important to note the context of Myanmar. "The history of Myanmar over the past 70 years... is a long and tortured history of a large, wealthy, talented country unable to come together and achieve national unity, unable to reconcile differences between ethnic groups, political ideologies."
"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; and certainly references to the Asean Charter and human rights, whilst essential, are not sufficient to change their behaviour," he added.
Dr Balakrishnan said he hoped for good sense and wisdom to prevail. "Despite all the bloodshed so far, I still think it is not too late."
He later concluded that from Myanmar's political and humanitarian issues, there were profound lessons for Singapore.
"Count our blessings (that) since independence, we have been able to come together as one people regardless of race, language or religion," he said. "We've been able to build a democracy that functions, we've been able to reconcile differences."
Singapore ready to extend more aid in Rohingya relief efforts
Singapore is prepared to send further consignments of aid to support relief efforts for Rohingya refugees, although there are obstacles presented by the ongoing military coup in their homeland of Myanmar, said Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan yesterday.
"The more fundamental political and violent events occurring within Myanmar itself complicate any attempts to address this humanitarian disaster. But we will continue to look out for opportunities," he told Parliament.
Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) had asked if Singapore would extend more aid to the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who fled to refugee camps in Cox's Bazar in neighbouring Bangladesh following a deadly military crackdown in Myanmar in 2017.
Several attempts at repatriation since have failed. The Rohingya have also condemned the coup and said it makes them more fearful about returning to their homeland.
Dr Balakrishnan said that on top of the fallout from the army's actions in Myanmar, there would be further humanitarian impact, given the Covid-19 pandemic and economic stresses as well as the unresolved settlement of the Rohingya.
He noted that as part of Singapore's ongoing assistance, it has contributed over $1 million in humanitarian aid to both Bangladesh and Myanmar, and also made contributions on disaster management.
Private-sector and community organisations in Singapore have also raised funds for the material needs of those in the refugee camps, added the minister.
"Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic last year also compromised the delivery of some of this humanitarian assistance," he noted. "It is important for us to resume efforts to ensure the safe, voluntary and dignified repatriation of refugees back to Rakhine state."
Dr Balakrishnan further pointed out that Singapore has strongly supported Asean efforts to help improve ground conditions in Myanmar's Rakhine state through projects such as the supply of radio receivers to the local community to better disseminate information.
Singapore stands ready to support future comprehensive needs assessments once repatriation starts, he said.