S'pore urges Myanmar to cooperate with Asean amid slow progress on peace efforts

PM Lee speaking at a virtual Asean summit of regional leaders on Oct 26, 2021. PHOTO: MINISTRY OF COMMUNICATIONS AND INFORMATION (MCI).

SINGAPORE - Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Tuesday (Oct 26) urged Myanmar's military authorities to cooperate "fully and expeditiously" with a special envoy deployed as part of Asean's attempts to mitigate an ongoing bloody crisis in the country.

Noting that "progress has been slow" on the implementation of an earlier peace deal by the regional grouping that included granting the envoy - Brunei's Second Foreign Minister Erywan Yusof - access to concerned parties in Myanmar to facilitate mediation, PM Lee said: "This has real consequences for the people of Myanmar and Asean's credibility as a rules-based organisation."

He was speaking at a virtual Asean summit of regional leaders, with Myanmar's seat empty after the 10-member bloc made the rare decision to sideline junta chief Min Aung Hlaing for failing to end hostilities and initiate dialogue in his country.

Myanmar's ruling military, which rebuffed an invitation to send a non-political figure instead, has killed and arrested thousands in violent crackdowns since a February coup.

"We remain concerned about the situation in Myanmar," said PM Lee. "Singapore strongly supports Asean's efforts to assist Myanmar in a positive, peaceful and constructive manner."

He added that the Republic backs the "difficult but necessary" decisions made to uphold Asean's credibility during this challenging time.

In the meantime, Asean countries should continue providing much needed humanitarian assistance to the Myanmar people through the Asean Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management, he said.

In his speech, PM Lee also urged Asean to uphold its principles of unity and centrality when engaging major powers, take a common position on key global issues while respecting diverse views, and remain a neutral platform to work with external partners.

"We have and will continue to face difficult challenges from geopolitical tensions and competition between the major powers. We need to respond effectively to these challenges," he noted. "(Asean) must keep its role as the centre of an open and inclusive regional architecture."

PM Lee said Singapore has been clear and consistent in advocating the advancement of regional economic engagement and facilitation of trade, investment and connectivity, as well as respect and support for a rules-based global order anchored in international law.

"We hope that any new security arrangements will contribute constructively to regional peace and stability," he added. "Our external partners have a long history of dialogue and cooperation with us. It is important that we always be even-handed in our engagements with them."

Asean's "centrality" in the regional security architecture has come under scrutiny since Australia, Britain and the United States announced last month a defence pact that includes providing Canberra with a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines.

Aukus, as the pact is known, has divided opinion among Asean countries, while China has slammed the deal - widely viewed as a response to Chinese militarisation particularly in the South China Sea - as a threat to regional stability.

PM Lee on Tuesday said the trajectory of US-China relations will be the decisive factor in the region for many years to come.

"Singapore, like many countries in the region, wants to have good relationships with both the US and China. We neither wish to see the region becoming an arena for rivalry and conflict, nor do we want to be forced to take sides," he added.

"At the same time, we hope both the US and China will deepen substantive engagement with countries in the region on their own merits, beyond the lens of US-China competition."

Pointing to the digital economy and sustainable development as potential sectors for collaboration between the US, China and Asean, he said: "We hope the US and China will work out a modus vivendi that will enable them to cooperate in areas of shared interests, despite competition or disagreements on other issues."

PM Lee and regional leaders during a virtual Asean summit on Oct 26, 2021. PHOTO: MINISTRY OF COMMUNICATIONS AND INFORMATION

On the South China Sea, he reiterated that Singapore, as a non-claimant state, does not take sides on competing territorial claims.

The strategically vital waters have been a continued source of tension, with Beijing staking historical sovereignty and reacting with fury to freedom of navigation operations conducted by the US and Western allies.

"As a small nation dependent on trade for survival, we do have fundamental interests at stake," said PM Lee.

These are: maintaining peace and stability in one of the world's busiest waterways, upholding the right of all states to the freedom of navigation and overflight, and supporting the peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with universally recognised principles of international law.

Singapore thus hopes that all parties will work towards maintaining dialogue and ensuring their actions are in line with international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, he added.

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