The last few months have seen some rather rapid changes in Burmese politics. Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest, thousands of members and supporters of the National League for Democracy (NLD) released from prison, by-elections called for 48 seats and Aung San Suu Kyi herself allowed to contest — polling day is 1 April 2012.
If things carry on like that, it is entirely likely that the NLD, or a successor grouping, will be part of the government in the foreseeable future. When that happens, I hope they punish Singapore, or at least the Singapore government and its cronies.
Nobody really knows what is happening in the higher reaches of the Burmese government, still as opaque today as it was during military rule. Why have they taken the turn? Why are they opening up as fast as they seem to be? In the absence of a fuller understanding of their calculations, most people are reserving their bets. Things could well change abruptly tomorrow. Of course, we hope that they don’t. I hope that they continue to take this road till Burma is a full democracy.
What I can glimpse from various reports, particularly the online newspaper The Irrawaddy, no friend of the government, is that post-cyclone Nargis (2008) there was a realisation that Burma needed to reconnect with the world in order to rebuild and catch up development-wise, though exactly how the decision was made and how much resistance it faced internally is unclear. Sanctions imposed by America and Europe were surely a serious obstacle to progress, and it would have dawned on the generals then in charge, if not then-top boss Than Shwe himself, that some accommodation with their internal critics led by Aung San Suu Kyi would be essential to break out of their isolation.
Singapore and Asean have long pooh-poohed economic sanctions. We believed in engagement, our government said. Frankly, I’ve always held the view that these were quisling words. We wanted to profit from the wealth corruptly amassed by the generals and their cronies, we hoped to get uncontested entry into Burmese investment opportunities (only to discover there were none), and our government was held back by its own record of detention without trial and other anti-democratic actions from criticising the junta.
And if in historical hindsight we see that indeed the economic sanctions from the West made a huge difference, it would be the second great achievement for this non-violent approach. Twenty years ago, South Africa made peace with its own citizens, dismantling apartheid after suffering a decade of sanctions.
“Engagement” Singapore-style has nothing to show for it, by comparison.
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In the name of engagement, we have committed human rights abuses against patriotic Burmese. I wrote 22 August 2008 on the old Yawning Bread site an article, titled Singapore shows Burmese dissidents the door:
Six Burmese have been thrown out of Singapore in the last month or so when their residency passes were denied renewals. While the immigration office has not provided any explanation for any of these cases — and the silence itself can be read as sinister -– “they had some commonalities”, said Myo Myint Maung at a press conference on 22 August.
All six have had their personal particulars recorded by the police at one or more events organised by the expatriate Burmese community since last September, and each of them have, at least once, been summoned to Tanglin Police Station for investigation.
The Burmese in Singapore have organised “more than dozen” events in the last few months, from the march along Orchard and Tanglin Roads during the Asean summit held in Singapore last November, to petition signing against the sham referendum, to prayer vigils for those slain in the streets of Rangoon, said Myo. All have been peaceful, but they have also been a reflection of the deep anger felt by Burmese over the vileness of the military regime.
One of the six persons our government threw out had in fact been bonded to work for Singapore-registered companies for 3 years, a condition of a tuition grant given by the Ministry of Education. Maung Soe Thiha had been looking forward to start work when he graduated from the National University of Singapore this year.
His student pass expiring upon graduation, he applied for a Long Term Social Visit Pass, to look for a job. This should be routine, and “normally, people on Long term Social Visit Passes can stay for 6 months or more to seek employment,” said Myo. But in Soe Thiha’s case, the government rejected his application altogether, giving no reason for its decision.
Simultaneous with these events, the young man’s job search had just about found success. Hai Yong Engineering was prepared to give him his first job and the company promptly filed an electronic application for an Employment Pass for him. Without any visa at all, however, Soe Thiha had to leave Singapore. Hai Yong’s application for an Employment Pass for him is still in limbo three weeks later.
He is now languishing in Cambodia living on his savings.
Another equally ridiculous case is that of Hlaing Moe. He had been working as a Technical Supervisor with Sankyu (Singapore) Pte Ltd since July 2006 on an S Pass, which is the residency document for skilled foreigners. He applied for a renewal of his S Pass in July this year (his company was willing to continue employing him) but this application was also rejected without any explanation.
He therefore could only continue staying for a short while more under a Social Visit Pass (i.e. a tourist pass).
Hlaing Moe was also a part-time student at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, studying for a Diploma in Technology (Mechanical) with exams on 14 – 24 August 2008. He appealed for an extension of his Social Visit Pass to enable him to complete his exams, but this appeal was rejected, also without any reason.
He is now languishing in Malaysia.
How is it that fellow-Asean members Cambodia and Malaysia can provide safe harbour to these men when Singapore cannot? Does “engagement” mean we help the generals in Burma hound their dissidents for them?
And these were not the only two. Ho Choon Hiong made a film about one guy who was working in Singapore (for Sembawang Engineering, if I recall correctly) but was denied renewal of his employment permit and eventually he had to flee to Jakarta. I can’t recall the name of the film or find a trailer for it. However, Ho made a few other short videos of Burmese expatriates in Singapore, including this one:
It shows the crowd outside the Burmese Embassy in Singapore, demanding to exercise their right to vote No against the constitution drafted by the military junta.
How many of these persons were subsequently deported by Singapore, at great cost to their employment and livelihood?
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I warned several times in the past that our government was extremely short-sighted. Not that it was a surprise for me; I’ve also said on other occasions that this government had absolutely no vision for Singapore generally, and it goes without saying that when one has no vision at all, it’s rather hard to be far-sighted. I warned that military rule in Burma was unsustainable, that eventually it will collapse and a new democratic order take its place with the NLD likely to be at the centre of a new government. This process now seems to be underway, though fortunately it is less of a chaotic collapse, more of a (inexplicably brisk) peaceful transition.
Singapore risks having to pay for our government’s sins when the NLD gained power, I had said.
It’s time to demonstrate some remorse. In fairness to the brave men and women whom we have unjustly penalised, we should offer reparations to them individually. Every one whose student pass, long-term social visit pass or work pass we have terminated prematurely for political reasons should be compensated in cash. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong should go before Aung San Suu Kyi, bow abjectly and offer his contrite apologies for the way he has treated her supporters and other Burmese patriots, and accept whatever punishment the new Burmese government metes out.