SINGAPORE: Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan urged against the imposition of "widespread sanctions" on Myanmar, noting such actions would hurt ordinary people there the most.
Speaking in Parliament on Tuesday (Feb 16), Dr Balakrishnan pointed to World Bank estimates that about a quarter of Myanmar's population lives below the poverty line, and that this had been worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic.
"And so in all my discussions, my phone calls, I have said that we should not embark on widespread, generalised indiscriminate sanctions, because the people who will suffer most would be the ordinary people in Myanmar," he said.
Dr Balakrishnan's comments come after the military seized power in Myanmar earlier this month, detaining leaders of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party, which had won the country's election last year.
Last week the United States announced it was imposing sanctions on Myanmar's military leaders, calling on them to relinquish power.
Dr Balakrishan said Singapore hoped for "peaceful resolution and national reconciliation" in Myanmar.
"In this respect I also hope that the President, Win Myint, and the State Counsellor, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and the other detainees will be released so that they can engage in discussions and negotiations in good faith," he said.
"The stakeholders in Myanmar must find a long term, peaceful political solution, including a return to its path of democratic transition," he added.
"If the situation continues to escalate, there will be serious consequences for Myanmar and indeed for our region."
Singapore has always upheld the principle that Myanmar's future must be determined by its own people, said Dr Balakrishnan.
He noted that ASEAN operates by the principles of consensus and non-interference in the internal affairs of member states.
"Nevertheless I believe ASEAN can play a discreet, constructive role in facilitating a return to normalcy and stability in Myanmar," he said.
"Engagement rather than isolation will go further in ameliorating this crisis and ASEAN will work closely with all its external partners - including the United Nations, United States, China, India, Japan and the EU - to foster an inclusive dialogue with all key stakeholders, and we encourage Myanmar to return to its path of democratic transition," he said.
The recent developments in Myanmar would "inevitably further complicate" the issue of "refugees from Rakhine state" and delay their repatriation, he noted.
"So it will take time to reach a long term political solution in Myanmar as well as the Rakhine state in particular, but we do hope that all parties will give due consideration to the urgent humanitarian needs of the displaced persons, both in terms of immediate assistance and the need to improve ground conditions in the refugee camps," he said.
A military crackdown in 2017 resulted in hundreds of thousands of Rohingya from Rakhine state in Myanmar flee to neighbouring countries.
SEPARATION BETWEEN BUSINESS AND POLITICS
Dr Balakrishnan noted that Singapore is the largest foreign investor in Myanmar, with cumulative approved investments of US$24 billion as of December last year.
He pointed out that the major proportion of Singapore's investments in Myanmar occurred in the last five years under the NLD government, which saw a tenfold increase in direct investments compared to the preceding five-year period.
Companies made the decision to invest in Myanmar on commercial grounds and not because of "political influence or political suggestion" on the Government's part, he said, adding firms may have seen promising opportunities in a Myanmar undergoing democratic transition.
"I say all these in order to head off suggestions that we should now interfere on political grounds with commercial decisions," said Dr Balakrishnan.
Member of Parliament (MP) Gerald Giam (WP-Aljunied) asked if the Singapore Government and Singapore companies had joint ventures with the Myanmar military and its network companies, and if the Government was providing advice or assistance to such firms to avoid getting caught by possible further sanctions on the country.
Dr Balakrishnan said businesses have to be aware of political risks and socio-political dynamics when making investments, adding he was certain Singapore businesses were currently reevaluating their position in light of the current situation.
"But again I want to emphasise that it is crucial for us in both good times and bad times to maintain this separation between politics and business, and let businesses make commercial decisions, investment decisions, on their own merits, and I think this is a good time for us to maintain that discipline.
So no, I will not give specific advice to companies, but I will make to the maximum extent possible all information available in this House and beyond so that people can make their own commercial and investment decisions," he said.