Myanmar coup: Singapore PM Lee expresses hope wisdom will prevail after ‘tragic step back’

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's remarks about the situation in Myanmar were part of a broader interview on the global economy, geopolitics and other domestic developments with the BBC’s Talking Business Asia programme which will be aired on March 14 at 7.30pm. ― Ministry of Communications and Information/TODAY pic
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's remarks about the situation in Myanmar were part of a broader interview on the global economy, geopolitics and other domestic developments with the BBC’s Talking Business Asia programme which will be aired on March 14 at 7.30pm. ― Ministry of Communications and Information/TODAY pic

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SINGAPORE, March 3 — Outsiders have little influence on Myanmar’s “enormous tragic step back”,  Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said, expressing his wish for wisdom to prevail in the Southeast Asian nation and for the recently-installed military junta to work out an arrangement with the former civilian government.

In his first comments about the February 1 coup mounted by Myanmar’s military, and its subsequent violent crackdowns on protesters, Lee told British broadcaster BBC that imposing sanctions would not hurt the junta or its generals, but the population of Myanmar.

His remarks were part of a broader interview on the global economy, geopolitics and other domestic developments with the BBC’s Talking Business Asia programme which will be aired on March 14 at 7.30pm. His comments were provided to the media yesterday in a partial transcript from the Ministry of Communications and Information.

Lee said in the programme: “You can ostracise them, condemn them, and pass resolutions or not, but it really has very little influence on what Myanmar will do.”

He pointed out that the tragic situation was not new to the Myanmarese people, who experienced major riots after the 1988 coup, which led to thousands of deaths. There were also violent demonstrations during the country’s “saffron revolution” in 2007.

 “(These actions) had zero influence the last time round and the only impact was, for the lack of anybody (else) willing to talk to them, they fell back on those people who were willing to talk to them, which was China, and to some extent, India,” he said.

And although sanctions and condemnation made for an uncomfortable situation for the Myanmar junta, it did not cause them to decide that they must do what the Americans, the Europeans, or the countries of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) would have preferred, said Lee.

“To say that I will take action against them — where does this lead? Now, the demonstrators are saying military intervention in Myanmar? Is the (United States) 82nd Airborne going to arrive?”  he said, referring to an airborne infantry division of the US army.

Asked whether economic considerations came before humanitarian concerns in Myanmar, Lee said that deciding the action to take is not a matter of economics or trade as the volume of trade between Myanmar and other countries, including Singapore, is small.

A number of Western countries have imposed sanctions on Myanmar, including the US, though the effectiveness of these moves is questionable given the country’s limited trade exposure with the West. Some key figures, including junta leader Min Aung Hlaing, are already the subject of sanctions over the persecution of Rohingya Muslims.

What matters is whether it will make a difference, said Lee.

He expressed his hope that the Myanmar military — the Tatmadaw — would eventually conclude that military rule was untenable, as it did in the past. Following the 1988 coup, the junta government drew up a roadmap to democracy and held elections.

Said Lee: “We were all sceptical (about the roadmap), but they were serious about it and they did move in that direction systematically and eventually held elections.”

Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won the third and latest set of  elections in November 2020, but the results were challenged by the junta. Suu Kyi, along with other political figures, is being detained by the junta.

“Now, after all that journey to a civilian government, albeit with a big military influence in the system, to have to go back and have the military take over again it is an enormous tragic step back for them. Because there is no future that way,” said Lee.

He reiterated Singapore’s call for Suu Kyi to be released so that negotiations with her and her team may continue in order to work out a path to peace, and said that the use of lethal force against civilians and unarmed civilians “is just not acceptable”.

Lee’s comments came after a bloody day of protests on February 28 which saw use of live ammunition, as well as teargas and stun grenades, across the country. In the days following the February 1 coup, at least 21 people have died and thousands injured, according to the United Nations Human Rights Office.

He said: “These things have happened before bad things. But bad things having happened, I think sense can still eventually prevail. It may take quite a long time, but it can happen. It has happened before.”

‘World is watching’

Separately, Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said yesterday that while Singapore fully supports Asean’s principles of non-interference and consensus, it is in times like this that the grouping must demonstrate its ability to reach a common positions on developments within the region.

“The world is watching developments in Myanmar closely, and how Asean approaches the issue will be a stern test of Asean’s unity, credibility and relevance,” he said at an informal meeting with other Asean foreign ministers.

“It is critical that Asean continues to reiterate our guiding principles in light of the unfolding tragedy in Myanmar,” he added, according to a transcript of his remarks released by the Foreign Affairs Ministry.   

“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 organisation.” 

Dr Balakrishnan reiterated that Singapore is deeply concerned about the situation in Myanmar and that the use of force against unarmed civilians “is inexcusable”.

Singapore calls on Myanmar’s military to desist from the use of violent force and ”to urgently seek a negotiated compromise to the current situation”.

“The current situation in Myanmar is fraught, with significant risk of escalation. But there still remain prospects for a peaceful resolution as long as all sides engage in genuine and direct dialogue,” he added.

Speaking at a news conference after the informal meeting, Dr Balakrishnan said that it is useful for Asean to be able to convene a meeting for the ministers to listen to the representative of the Myanmar military authorities.

Asked if Asean’s credibility has been affected as a result of its response so far, he said that the problem and solution for the issue at hand lie within Myanmar.

What Asean can do is to provide a conducive stage for dialogue. 

“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.  

Asked if Asean recognises the military leaders as the government of Myanmar, he replied in the negative, adding however that the grouping recognises that under the country’s 2008 constitution, the military has a special role in Myanmar politics. ― TODAY

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