US in Talks With ASEAN, Singapore to Restrict Myanmar Junta’s Access to Funds

Nontarat Phaicharoen, Hadi Azmi and Shailaja Neelakantan
Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Washington
2021-10-21
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US in Talks With ASEAN, Singapore to Restrict Myanmar Junta’s Access to Funds U.S. State Department Counselor Derek Chollet (left) speaks with Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, in Singapore, Oct. 20, 2021.
[Courtesy Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs]

Washington is talking with ASEAN member Singapore about limiting the Burmese military regime’s access to money, as part of efforts to pile pressure on the junta chief who has been barred from an upcoming regional summit, a senior U.S. State Department official said Thursday.

The decision by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations last week to disinvite junta chief Min Aung Hlaing from the ASEAN summit in late October, and his subsequent release of thousands of prisoners, shows how effective international pressure can be, State Department Counselor Derek Chollet said during a news conference by phone from Jakarta.

The foreign minister of Malaysia, an outspoken ASEAN state, similarly said on Thursday that the regional bloc needed to use its standing to put pressure on those who violate human rights – and should therefore rethink its cherished principle of non-interference in members’ affairs.

“Deepening our partnership with ASEAN is the main objective of our inter-agency trip, for example … Singapore has significant financial leverage over the regime and we discussed how we can partner effectively to wield that,” Chollet said about his trip to the city-state a day earlier.

Chollet was speaking to reporters on the final leg of a three-country visit to Southeast Asia by an inter-agency American delegation, which he is leading.

“At each stop, we reiterated our support for the people of Burma and their aspirations for democracy,” he told reporters. “We have underscored that the international community has the responsibility to pressure the military regime to stop violence and respect people’s will. It is a critical juncture in the crisis.”

While visiting the Lion City, Chollet tweeted, he had a “productive meeting” with Ho Hern Shin, deputy managing director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore.

“We discussed ways to limit the Burmese military regime’s access to overseas financial assets,” he said.

Singapore overtook China to become the largest investor in Myanmar in 2019, The Myanmar Times reported back then. From October 2018 to February 2019, Singapore invested U.S. $20.6 billion there, according to a government agency called Enterprise Singapore.

Chollet also cited the example of jointly taking advantage of Thailand’s long border with Myanmar.

“Thailand is a critical humanitarian assistance partner because of its long border with Burma and the leverage that gives is one of the things we discussed in Thailand,” he said.

In addition, Washington, for several months now, has held talks with members of the shadow civilian National Unity Government in Myanmar, Chollet said.

“We are deeply committed to engaging with them … encouraging them to unify [the pro-democracy] movement. And we will continue to engage with them,” he said.

ASEAN-Pic.jpeg

People wait outside Insein Prison in Yangon as the military authorities announced that more than 5,000 people jailed for protesting against a February coup, which ousted the civilian government, would be released, in Myanmar, Oct. 18, 2021. [AFP]

ASEAN should do ‘soul searching’

Meanwhile, on the far side of the globe, a senior U.S. National Security Council (NSC) member said that apart from ASEAN’s decision to bar the Burmese junta chief from the summit on Oct. 26-28, more action needed to be taken to respond to post-coup challenges in Myanmar effectively.

“Of course, we applaud ASEAN for the leadership it has shown, but obviously this is not enough,” Edgard Cagan, senior director of East Asia and Oceania at the NSC, said at an event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington late Wednesday.

“Addressing the challenges of the coup and the difficulties people are facing because of the coup, those things require a broader and more effective effort.”

Cagan did not specify what those efforts could be. But many analysts have said that ASEAN should suspend Myanmar’s membership, stop trade with it – and not take steps such as lobby to water down a United Nations resolution calling for an arms embargo on the country.

Indeed, there has been criticism of ASEAN, even from within its members, about the slow pace of its decision making and because it took the bloc more than 100 days to appoint a special envoy to Myanmar.

In recent weeks, Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah has been forthright about what ASEAN needs to do and about its shortcomings.

On Thursday, he said that ASEAN’s “almost sacrosanct principle” of not interfering in member-states’ internal business has “in many ways, been useful and practical in many situations.”

“But when we are faced with a situation like the one that is currently occurring in Myanmar, then perhaps ASEAN should actually do some soul searching,” he said. Saifuddin was referring to the violence unleashed after the coup by security forces who have killed almost 1,180 people, most of them pro-democracy protestors.

“Maybe now is the time for ASEAN to do serious soul searching on the application of the principle of non-interference and look at other experiences of other regions,” he said.

Saifuddin cited the African Union, which suspended its member Mali after a military coup there in late May.

Saifuddin said that at last week’s meeting with his ASEAN counterparts, some member-states had shown reluctance on the issue of shutting out Min Aung Hlaing.

“I stated the fact that we cannot use the principle of non-interference as a shield to avoid issues being addressed,” the minister recalled.

“The principle of non-interference cannot be applied separately from, or above, other ASEAN principles of strengthening democracy, promoting and protecting human rights, good governance and the rule of law.”

In previous years, ASEAN members have talked about “constructive engagement” rather than non-interference, regional analysts said.

“I think ASEAN is starting to move away from strict non-interference, but … the newer members may feel intimidated if ASEAN chooses to snub Myanmar or punish it,” Tunku Mohar Mokhtar, an academic at the International Islamic University Malaysia, told BenarNews.

“However, ASEAN should also make it clear to Myanmar that the association does not tolerate blatant abuse of human rights by any of its members.”

Still, the biggest sticking point in ASEAN’s decision-making process remains the principle of “consensus” – all decisions taken by the bloc have to be approved by all members.

“The problem is the mechanism itself, because as we know, to reform ASEAN you need consensus among all the countries, including countries that do not want to change. Therefore there can be no consensus.”

“It’s an irony – to change the system you need people in the system who want to change, so that is the difficulty.”

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