Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan spoke at length about the complexities of the situation in Myanmar, whose democratically-elected leaders were overthrown in a military coup in early-2021.
Since then, the military junta has held sway, and a civil war has raged with "thousands" dead and an estimated 1.5 million displaced, according to DW.
Asean has not recognised the legitimacy of the military government, or allowed the participation of the military leaders at the political level at Asean events.
During the Committee of Supply debate on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) on Feb. 27, members of the Workers' Party sought clarifications about the situation in Myanmar following Vivian's speech that touched upon Asean matters.
Why didn't Singapore attend Thailand meeting with junta leaders in Dec. 2022?
WP Member of Parliament Sylvia Lim of Aljunied GRC asked about a meeting hosted by the Thailand foreign ministry in Dec. 2022, attended by the junta leaders and also the foreign ministers of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines did not attend.
This was done despite a previous Asean decision to exclude Myanmar junta leaders from Asean-level meetings, due to the lack of progress in implementing the Five-Point Consensus plan.
She asked if Vivian could confirm the reasons for Singapore not attending, and if he thought that this demonstrated a "difference of opinion or approach" on how the Myanmar junta leaders and the situation in Myanmar should be approached.
Tragedy, but non-interference
In response, Vivian took a step back, calling the situation in Myanmar a "tragedy" and saying that it is not something that can be fixed externally.
He cited Myanmar's history, going back to the second World War, and the fact that they had not been able to forge a single consensus on identity and bringing the "component parts" together.
While the people of Myanmar are just as talented and hard-working as anyone else, and as motivated to get ahead and provide for their families, the political situation has not made this conducive for Myanmar's people.
"This coup, two years now in the making, has not helped. If you ask me for my opinion, I think it is a dead end. It's not going to lead to a road where you will achieve national reconciliation, national reconstruction, the forging of a national identity, the protection of minorities, the uplift of its economy and the capacity of its people."
But having said that, Vivian made it clear that "we do not believe" in foreign interference in domestic affairs. "Nothing that we do can solve the problem, if the key stakeholders within Myanmar society themselves are not prepared to sit down and have an honest-to-goodness conversation with each other of the sake of the future of their people," he said.
Therefore, although Asean clearly disapproves of the coup, and does not recognise the current military junta in Myanmar, it does not give Asean a license to interfere in its domestic affairs.
"I hope you'd agree with me that it is necessary for us to take this principled but restrained position on Myanmar," he added.
Timeline of Asean's approach to Myanmar junta
On the Thailand meeting, Vivian laid out a timeline of events. In April 2021, a special Asean meeting led to the creation of the Five Points Consensus. Unfortunately, there had not been significant progress since then. So later in 2021, Asean decided that Myanmar will not participate at a political level in Asean meetings.
The reason for the distinction between the political level and Myanmar's civil service is that Myanmar remains a member of Asean, and it should continue to enjoy the benefits of membership to the extent possible within the constraint of its own domestic politics.
Myanmar should also be able to access information available to Asean, as it is not keeping any secrets from Myanmar. Vivian also pointed out that there's an empty chair at Asean meetings. Asean doesn't insist upon keeping an empty chair, Myanmar is free to send a non-political representative, such as a senior civil servant. However, Myanmar refuses to do so and keeps that chair empty.
However, not everyone views the problem in Myanmar "through the same prism."
Disapproval, but still engagement and communication
For example, its immediate neighbours who face refugee outflows would be in a "greater hurry" to see a resolution or perhaps be prepared to compromise on a resolution. Singapore maintains a principled position of disapproval, but while the political leaders of Myanmar are not represented at the foreign minister's level, that doesn't mean there is no communication or engagement.
Vivian clarified that the particular meeting in Thailand was not an Asean meeting, it was a bilateral meeting between Thailand and the junta leaders, and it was open to other.
"I didn't think our participation in such a format would be helpful," Vivian said. But he elaborated that he was open to speaking to members of the junta and make clear our views, which is to stick to the Five Point Consensus, release Aung San Suu Kyi and the other imprisoned political leaders, and discuss the future together.
However, he sounded a word of caution, and said that this is a very difficult and complex problem and he does not know how long it will take to be resolved.
Is the consensus-based approach still relevant?
Another Workers' Party MP, Gerald Giam of Aljunied GRC, also sought clarification on Myanmar.
He acknowledged the complexity of the situation, but asked for "more clarity" on Vivian's answers to his questions, which were:
- Has Singapore ever pushed at the Asean summit for a decision to be taken by a vote on issues where arriving at a consensus is "impossible", provided for in the Asean Charter.
- Was the decision to bar Myanmar's participation at the political level arrived at by consensus, or was it done by a vote?
- Is Singapore open to considering alternative decision-making mechanisms at Asean, or is MFA's position that sticking to the consensus decision-making approach in all cases best serves Singapore's interests.
The Minister has stated that decision by consensus in Asean is a feature, not a bug, however does the Minister agree that sometimes features don't work well in all situations?" Giam asked.
Asean is extremely diverse, consensus approach helps protects minorities
In response, Vivian said that no other regional organisation has such a diverse range of members as Asean, which includes absolute monarchies, constitutional monarchies, and democracies of "various shades", as well as a myriad languages, cultures and religions.
Therefore, in the midst of this diversity, it is important to protect a single community or state or a "body of opinion" that may be a minority at that point in time.
"When consensus is abused, it becomes an avenue for everyone to take hostages and to loosely threaten a veto," Vivian acknowledged. But he added that in practice, while knowing that consensus has to be sought, this creates an additional level of consultations, negotiations and compromises.
This imaginative diplomacy would not be present if everyone has easy access to majoritarian voting.
Vivian said he believed there was good reason for the Asean founders to design the consensus principle, and while he recognises the challenges, it is not something he is keen to lightly abandon or change.
Consensus upheld despite Myanmar coup
He then elaborated on the specific case of Myanmar, where in April 2021, its elected leaders were detained and could not attend the Asean meeting.
General Min Aung Hlaing of the junta attended, but the rest of Asean did not view his attendance as conferring legitimacy on him or giving him the status of a head of state.
"As far as we're concerned," said Vivian, the decision of the Five Point Consensus was made at that meeting, and there was consensus of the Asean leaders that were legitimately recognised by each other, therefore the consensus principle continues to operate.
"More importantly, we have not allowed Myanmar to hold us hostage and force us to expedite for instance, recognising the coup outcome so that we can conduct business as usual," Vivian pointed out. He added that the Asean Charter does recognise situations where consensus will not be possible, and in those circumstances, it allows sufficient flexibility for the leaders to decide how to move forward.
Despite some issues this approach has generally worked, and Asean has been able to make progress with external partners.
"And when Myanmar has a government which is legitimate and recognised as such, I'm sure they will sign on to the agreements that we have made as well," he said, adding that this is a reason not to withhold information from Myanmar.
Top image from ciaomyanmar Facebook page.