SINGAPORE: The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) must reiterate its guiding principles, including adherence to democracy and respect for human rights when it comes to the situation in Myanmar, failing which member states will have no choice but to state their individual positions on the issue, said Minister of Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan on Tuesday (Mar 2).
Such an outcome, however, would only underscore the lack of unity in the grouping, he added.
Speaking during an informal meeting of ASEAN's foreign ministers, he said that while Singapore fully supports the principles of non-interference and consensus enshrined in the ASEAN Charter, the grouping must demonstrate its ability to reach a common position on developments in its own region.
He reiterated Singapore’s support for the statement issued by ASEAN Chair Brunei on Feb 1, which reaffirmed the importance of the principles enshrined in the ASEAN Charter.
These include adherence to the principles of democracy, the rule of law, good governance as well as respect for and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.
“We have also called for dialogue, reconciliation, and the return to normality in accordance with the will of the people of Myanmar,” Dr Balakrishnan said.
He added: “It is critical that ASEAN continues to reiterate our guiding principles in light of the unfolding tragedy in Myanmar.”
“If not, we will have no choice but to state our views on the situation as individual ASEAN Member States. But quite frankly, this would starkly underscore our lack of unity, and undermine our credibility and relevance as an organization,” he said.
He added that Singapore is deeply saddened and gravely concerned about the situation in Myanmar.
“Over the past weekend, there was a significant escalation in violence across cities in Myanmar, causing many deaths and injuries. We are appalled at the use of lethal force by the Myanmar security forces against demonstrators, many of them young people for simply looking forward to a brighter future. The use of lethal force against unarmed civilians, under any circumstances, is inexcusable.”
He said that the immediate priority must be to step back from a rapidly deteriorating situation.
“It is not too late. Singapore calls on the Myanmar military authorities to publicly commit, in words and in deeds today, to exercise utmost restraint, and to desist from the use of lethal force, and to steadfastly ensure that there is no further violence and bloodshed.”
Dr Balakrishnan said that Singapore, like many countries, hopes to see national reconciliation and stability in Myanmar.
"We therefore call on the military authorities in the strongest terms to urgently seek a negotiated compromise to the current situation. It is critical for key stakeholders in Myanmar to come together to find a long-term, peaceful political solution which includes a return to Myanmar’s democratic path, taking into account the legitimate interests of all parties," he said.
"And in this regard, Singapore strongly urges the immediate release of President Win Myint, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and the other political detainees, so that they can engage in direct and meaningful negotiations in good faith."
At least 18 people died on Sunday, said the United Nations human rights office, as Myanmar authorities cracked down on protests against the military coup that took place on Feb 1.
On Tuesday, Myanmar police opened fire to disperse protesters who had gathered behind barricades in different parts of the main city of Yangon to chant slogans against military rule.
There were no reports of any injuries in Yangon but several people were wounded in the northwestern town of Kale when police fired live ammunition to disperse a crowd, according to a democracy activist and a reporter in the town.
ASEAN CAN PROVIDE A "CONDUCIVE STAGE" FOR DIALOGUE: BALAKRISHNAN
Speaking to reporters after the informal meeting, Dr Balakrishnan said ASEAN can provide a "conducive stage" for dialogue regarding Myanmar.
"ASEAN can help. ASEAN can provide a conducive stage. The fact that there is a regional organisation that is able to have a frank conversation, that is able to engage with the military leadership, is better than not having any communication and not having any ability to express the world's ... anxiety and concern for the people of Myanmar," he said.
Dr Balakrishnan said the fact that ASEAN had convened the meeting for an opportunity to listen to the representative of Myanmar's military authorities was "useful".
The minister added that the regional grouping could in the future even serve as a mediator for issues that are faced.
However, he noted that it would be premature at this stage, with the ongoing political detention of the National League of Democracy leadership, including civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
He also said that Singapore has not recognised the military leaders of Myanmar.
READ: Singapore's Foreign Minister calls on Myanmar's military to stop using lethal force against civilians
Earlier in the day, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the Myanmar military's use of lethal force in ongoing demonstrations is a "disastrous" move.
During an interview with BBC, Mr Lee said: "To use lethal force against civilians and unarmed demonstrators, I think it is just not acceptable."
"That is disastrous not just internationally, but disastrous domestically, because it means that civilians, everybody in Myanmar, knows.
"You may try to squeeze down the Internet, but news gets around, and the Myanmar population knows who is on their side. If they decide that the government is not on their side, I think the government has a very big problem," he added.
When asked by the BBC if he was suggesting more engagement and no sanctions, Mr Lee said that it was not a matter of economic consideration.
He cited the "small" volume of trade between Myanmar and Singapore and other countries and he questioned if sanctions would make a difference.
"It will not be the military, or the generals who will hurt. It will be the Myanmar population who will hurt. It will deprive them of food, medicine, essentials, and opportunities for education. How does that make things better?" he asked.
At least 21 protesters have been killed since the turmoil began. The army said one policemen was killed.
The military has justified the Feb 1 coup saying its complaints of fraud in a November election won by Aung San Suu Kyi's party were ignored. The election commission said the vote was fair.
ASEAN READY TO FACILITATE DIALOGUE: RETNO MARSUDI
Separately, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said during a press conference on Tuesday that ASEAN is ready to facilitate dialogue if requested.
"Internal communication and dialogue between stakeholders in Myanmar is of course always the best choice.
"However, Indonesia is confident that ASEAN is also ready to facilitate such dialogue if requested," said Mdm Marsudi.
She said that all ASEAN member countries are expected to understand their rights and obligations which are clearly stated in the ASEAN charter.
"The task of ASEAN member countries is to carry out the principles and values stated in the ASEAN charter in their entirety. Respecting the principle of non-interference is mandatory," she said.
She added: “I am sure that no ASEAN member country has the intention to violate the principle of non-interference.
"However, at the same time respecting human beings and implementing other principles and values in the ASEAN charter, including democracy, respect for human rights, good governance, rule of law, constitutional governance, are equally important.," she said.
She added that goodwill will not help if Myanmar does not open the door to ASEAN.
Meanwhile, Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said in a statement that the resolution to the political deadlock in Myanmar is a domestic-led process.
"It is unquestionable that Myanmar has the prerogative on its domestic political matters. However, we hope that Myanmar also considers the concerns raised by ASEAN Member States constructively," he said.
"If the situation in Myanmar worsens, ASEAN will need to consider that this recurring situation in Myanmar is a setback towards regional peace, stability and prosperity. Myanmar needs to also continue cooperating with ASEAN Member States to avoid being a fault line that could lead to possible instability in this region."