Budget debate: Singapore urges Myanmar to stop using lethal force, free Suu Kyi immediately

At least 18 people were killed as the military regime cracked down on protesters across the country. PHOTO: AFP

SINGAPORE - Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan on Monday (March 1) urged all parties in Myanmar to find a way to return to the path of democratic transition.

"We believe this can only begin if President Win Myint, State Counsellor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi, and the other political detainees are immediately released," he told Parliament during the debate on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' budget.

At least 18 people were killed on Sunday (Feb 28) as the military regime that ousted the National League for Democracy and its leaders a month ago cracked down on protesters across the country. The escalation in violence, which saw security forces shoot at civilians with live rounds, stun grenades and tear gas, also caused many injuries and has drawn global condemnation.

Dr Balakrishnan said: "We are appalled by the use of lethal force against civilians.

"We express our heartfelt condolences to the families of those who lost their lives, and we hope that the injured will recover quickly. We strongly reiterate that the use of lethal weapons against unarmed civilians is inexcusable in all circumstances.

"We call on the Myanmar military authorities to exercise utmost restraint, to desist from the use of lethal force, and take immediate steps to de-escalate the situation to prevent further bloodshed, violence and deaths."

Added the minister: "We call on all parties in Myanmar to engage in discussions and negotiations in good faith, and to pursue a long-term peaceful political solution for national reconciliation."

He also emphasised that despite Asean's core principles of consensus and non-interference, the 10-member grouping could still play a constructive role in facilitating a return to normalcy and stability in Myanmar.

Workers' Party MP Dennis Tan (Hougang) had asked for an update on Singapore's position on the crisis in Myanmar, given "disconcerting" recent developments.

"Asean's ability to demonstrate initiative on the Myanmar issue may be key," said Mr Tan. "An effective Asean helps members like Singapore maintain our autonomy in a platform to make our voices heard.

"Singapore is invested in Asean's success. So it is imperative for the Government to bring Singaporeans on board with what it is doing, to support Asean's ability to play a practical and positive role when faced with an unfolding situation in Myanmar," he added.

Mr Tan noted that political instability in the region could have an impact for Singapore, and made the point that with South-east Asia as a focal point for intensifying competition between the US and China, any inability to respond to the Myanmar situation on Asean's part could spur further contestation among major powers.

"This may possibly cause severe and even irreversible divisions in Asean," said Mr Tan.

In February, Dr Balakrishnan stressed that there should be no violence against unarmed civilians, and that live rounds should not be fired on them under any circumstances.

He also told Parliament on Feb 16 that Asean could play a discreet role in helping Myanmar return to stability even as it stands firm on its policy of not interfering in the domestic politics of its members.

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On Monday, Dr Balakrishnan described the developments in Myanmar as of grave concern to Singapore and Asean.

"The immediate priority is to halt all acts of violence and the use of lethal force, and to step back from a rapidly deteriorating situation," he said.

He also warned that prolonged instability would have serious consequences for Myanmar, Asean and the region.

"This was why Singapore strongly supported Asean's efforts from the outset, including the Asean chair's statement. We believe in engagement and dialogue in good faith with all relevant stakeholders," he said.

The regional body had called for "dialogue, reconciliation and the return to normalcy" on the same day the coup was staged on Feb 1.

A special Asean foreign ministers' meeting will also be held via videoconference on Tuesday, where the ministers will listen to the representative of the Myanmar military authorities.

"Asean will also work closely with all our external partners to foster an inclusive dialogue with key stakeholders," added Dr Balakrishnan. "We must ensure that the mutually beneficial relations that Asean and our partners have built do not become paralysed by this issue.

"If we can hold together and maintain Asean centrality, the longer-term prospects for our region are still robust."

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