Image by AFP
Tay Za(L), Chairman of Air Bagan, and Lim Kim Choon, Director-General and Chief Executive Officer of Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore, toast Myanmar’s Air Bagan after its maiden flight to Singapore at the Changi International Airport in Singapore. Singapore became the second international destination for Myanmar’s Air Bagan on Friday with the airline’s launch of daily flights between the two countries. Photo and report by AFP. Read the full report after Eric Ellis’ article. Related reports: Asia’s financial parking lot and TIME’s Going Nowhere.

Web of cash, power and cronies by Eric Ellis, The Age, 29 Sept 2007

SINGAPORE isn’t just skilled at mandatory executions of drug traffickers, running an excellent airport and selling cameras on Orchard Road. It also does a useful trade keeping Burma’s military rulers and their cronies afloat.

Much attention is placed on China and its coming hosting of the Olympic Games as a diplomatic pressure point on the rampant Burmese junta. But there is a group of government businessmen-technocrats in Singapore who will also be closely monitoring the brutality in Rangoon. And, were they so inclined, their influence could go a long way to limiting the misery being inflicted on Burma’s 54 million people.

Collectively known as “Singapore Inc”, they gather around the $A150 billion state-owned investment house Temasek Holdings, controlled by a member of the ruling Lee family.

With an estimated $A3 billion staked in the country (and a more than $20 billion stake in Australia), Singapore Inc companies have been some of the biggest investors in and supporters of Burma’s military junta — this while its Government, on the rare times it is asked, suggests a softly-softly diplomatic approach towards the junta.

When it comes to Burma, Singapore pockets the high morals it likes to wave at the West elsewhere. Singapore’s one-time head of foreign trade once said as his country was building links with Burma in the mid-1990s: “While the other countries are ignoring it, it’s a good time for us to go in … you get better deals, and you’re more appreciated … Singapore’s position is not to judge them and take a judgemental moral high ground.”

But by providing Burma’s pariah junta with the crucial equipment mostly denied by Western sanctions, Singapore has helped keep the junta and its cronies afloat for 20 years, since the last time the generals killed the citizens they are supposed to protect.

Withdraw that financial support and Burma’s junta would be substantially weakened, perhaps even fail. But after two decades of profitable business with the trigger-happy generals and their cronies, that’s about the last thing Singapore is likely to do. There’s too much money to be made.

Hotels, airlines, military materiel and training, crowd control equipment and sophisticated telecoms-monitoring devices for its secret police — Singapore is manager and supplier to the junta, and the “cronified” economy it controls.

It’s impossible to spend any time in Burma and not make the junta richer, thanks to Singapore suppliers’ contracts with the tourism industry. Singapore’s hospitals also keep Burma’s leaders alive — 74-year-old junta leader Than Shwe has been getting his intestinal cancer treated in a Singapore government hospital, protected by Singapore security. Singapore’s boutiques keep junta wives and families cloaked in Armani, and its banks help launder their money and that of Burma’s crony drug lords.

Much of Singapore’s activity in Burma has been documented by an analyst working in Prime Minister John Howard’s direct chain of command, in the Office of National Assessments. Andrew Selth is recognised as an authority on the Burmese military. Now a research fellow at Queensland’s Griffith University, Mr Selth has written extensively on how close Singapore is to the junta.

Often writing as “William Ashton” in the authoritative Jane’s Intelligence Review, Mr Selth has described in various articles how Singapore has sent the junta guns, rockets, armoured personnel carriers and grenade launchers, some of it trans-shipped from stocks seized by Israel from Palestinians in southern Lebanon.

Singaporean companies have provided computers and networking equipment for Burma’s defence ministry and army, while upgrading the bunkered junta’s ability to network with regional commanders — so crucial as protesting monks take to the streets of 20 Burmese cities, causing major logistical headaches for the Tatmadaw, the Burmese military.

“Singapore cares little about human rights, in particular the plight of the ethnic and religious minorities in Burma,” Mr Selth writes.

“Having developed one of the region’s most advanced armed forces and defence industrial support bases, Singapore is in a good position to offer Burma a number of inducements which other ASEAN (Association of South-East Asian Nations) countries would find hard to match.”

Singapore’s Foreign Minister, George Yeo, is the current chairman of ASEAN.

Mr Selth says Singapore also provided the equipment for a “cyber war centre” to monitor dissident activity while training Burma’s secret police, whose sole job seems to be ensuring pro-democracy groups are crushed.

Monitoring dissidents is an area where Singapore has particular expertise. After almost five decades in power, the Lee family-controlled People’s Action Party ranks behind only the communists of China, Cuba and North Korea in leadership longevity, skilled in neutralising opposition.

“This centre is reported to be closely involved in the monitoring and recording of foreign and domestic telecommunications, including the satellite telephone conversations of Burmese opposition groups,” Mr Selth writes.

Singapore Government companies, such as leading arms supplier Singapore Technologies, dominate the communications and military sector in Singapore. “It is highly unlikely,” Mr Selth writes, “that any of these arms shipments to Burma could have been made without the knowledge and support of the Singapore Government.”

He notes that Singapore’s ambassadors to Burma have included a former senior Singapore armed forces officer, and a past director of Singapore’s defence-oriented Joint Intelligence Directorate, people with a military background rather than professional diplomats.

He writes that after the 1988 crackdown, when the junta killed 3000 protesters, “the first country to come to the regime’s rescue was in fact Singapore”.

When I interviewed Singapore Technologies chief executive Peter Seah at his office in Singapore, I asked about the scale model of an armoured personnel carrier made by his company on his office table. He said ST sold the vehicles “only to allies”.

Does that include Burma, I asked, given that Singapore controversially helped sponsor the military regime into ASEAN?

Mr Seah was non-specific: “We only sell to allies and we make sure they are responsible.” He didn’t say how. ST and Temasek don’t respond to questions about their activities in Burma.

Singapore is so close to Burma that one of its diplomats there wrote a handbook for its business people there. Matthew Sim’s Myanmar on my Mind is full of useful tips for Singaporean business people in Burma. “A little money goes a long way in greasing the wheels of productivity,” he writes.

A chapter headed “Committing Manslaughter when Driving” describes the appropriate action if a Singaporean businessman accidentally kills a Burmese pedestrian. “Firstly, the international businessman could give the family of the deceased some money as compensation and dissuade them from pressing charges. Secondly, he could pay a Myanmar citizen to take the blame by declaring that he was the driver in the fatal accident. An international businessman should not make the mistake of trying to argue his case in a court of law when it comes to a fatal accident, even if he is in the right.”

Mr Sim says many successful Myanmar businessmen have opened shell companies in Singapore “with little or no staff, used to keep funds overseas”. The companies are used to keep business deals outside the control of Burma’s central bank, enabling Singaporeans and others to transact with Burma in Singapore.

He may be referring to junta cronies such as Tay Za and the drug lord Lo Hsing Han. Lo is an ethnic Chinese, from Burma’s traditionally Chinese-populated and opium-rich Kokang region in the country’s east, bordering China. He controls a massive heroin empire, and one of Burma’s biggest companies, Asia World, which the US Drug Enforcement Agency describes as a front for his drug-trafficking. Asia World controls toll roads, industrial parks and trading companies. Singapore is the Lo family’s crucial window to the world, as it controls a number of companies there. His son Steven, who has been denied a visa to the US because of his links to the drug trade, married a Singaporean, Cecilia Ng, and the two reportedly control Singapore-based trading house Kokang Singapore.

A former assistant secretary of state for the US Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, Robert Gelbard, has said that half Singapore’s investment in Burma has “been tied to the family of narco-trafficker Lo Hsing Han”.

Tay Za, who is romantically linked to a daughter of junta leader Than Shwe, is also well known in Singapore. He was prominent in the Singapore media last year, toasting the launch of his airline Air Bagan with the head of Singapore’s aviation authority. Dissident groups say the trade-off for Tay Za’s government business contracts in Burma is to fund junta leaders’ medical trips to Singapore.

Eric Ellis is an Australian journalist and correspondent in South-East Asia.


Myanmar’s Air Bagan launches Singapore service, Sep 7, 2007

SINGAPORE (AFP) — Singapore became the second international destination for Myanmar’s Air Bagan on Friday with the airline’s launch of daily flights between the two countries.

The new service, offering 14 flights each week, begins amid an international outcry against the Myanmar junta’s recent crackdown on dissent, and questions over international engagement with the regime.

The Air Bagan Airbus A310-200, fully loaded with 224 passengers and guests, landed about 30 minutes late on its inaugural flight from Yangon.

Tay Za, the airline’s chairman, told a welcoming ceremony at Changi Airport that the Singapore service marks “a new phase” of Air Bagan’s operation.

Singapore is only the second international destination for the carrier after service to Bangkok began in May, he said.

“I believe that our service will promote the relationship between the two countries, at the same time boost tourism with ASEAN nations,” he said before the audience were showered in gold confetti.

Two other carriers, Singapore Airlines’ regional unit SilkAir, and Jetstar Asia, already link Singapore and Yangon.

Lim Kim Choon, director general of the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS), said the Air Bagan service begins “at an opportune” time when growth in passenger traffic between the two countries is at its strongest.

Last year, 156,000 people travelled between the countries, 23.5 percent higher than the previous year, he said in a statement. In the first six months of this year, the growth continued as 92,000 passengers made the trip, he said.

Asked how much difficulty Air Bagan has had in securing international landing rights, Gopi Bala, the airline’s senior marketing manager, told AFP: “It’s been easy.”

He said Kunming, China, is expected to become an Air Bagan destination by the end of this year.

According to Amnesty International, more than 150 people have been detained in Myanmar since August 19, when activists began protests against a huge hike in fuel prices that left some people unable to afford even bus fare.

The most serious showdown occurred in Pakokku, about 500 kilometres (310 miles) north of the commercial capital Yangon.

Hundreds of Buddhist monks held a group of local and security officials hostage for several hours in Pakokku on Thursday, after troops violently broke up an anti-junta protest, residents said.

US president George W. Bush has called the junta’s crackdown on the dissent in Myanmar “tyrannical” and called for the release of the prisoners.

Ibrahim Gambari, the United Nations pointman in efforts to promote national reconciliation in Myanmar, warned Wednesday that the crackdown made it “more difficult to maintain international support for engagement with Myanmar.”

On Friday, Philippines Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo said Southeast Asia’s controversial policy to engage Myanmar, a pariah in the west due to its human rights record, was not working out.

Asked about the timing of the new Air Bagan service, as criticism of the regime mounts, Bala said, “I refuse to answer on that.”

A spokesman for Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told AFP that the city-state has an air services agreement with Myanmar.

“Singapore is an air hub and we welcome airlines of all countries to fly to Singapore,” the spokesman said.

“It is not clear that further isolating an already isolated government will have any beneficial impact on internal developments in Myanmar.”

Singapore has backed the UN’s efforts on Myanmar. It has also supported the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) calls for the Myanmar government to stick to its “Roadmap to Democracy” and for the release of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.


Asean double talk by Amando Doronila, Columns, Inquirer, 5 Oct 2007

MANILA, Philippines — When the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) expressed “revulsion” at the brutal crackdown of protesters calling for the end of Burma’s military dictatorship, the statement was hailed as the strongest condemnation yet by Asean of the repressive Burmese junta.

It was also a disgusting manifestation of Asean’s prevarication and double talk on Burma, and a revelation that Asean is the weakest regional bloc of nations with hardly any influence at all to bring pressure on the Burmese generals to negotiate reconciliation with the democracy movement led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

The statement, issued after the Asean foreign ministers’ meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, urged the junta “to exercise utmost restraint and seek a political solution” to the crisis. The statement said the ministers “were appalled” by reports that automatic weapons were being used to fire at the protesters in Rangoon and demanded that the government “immediately desist from the use of violence.”

In the statement issued by Singapore’s Foreign Minister George Yeo, the ministers called for the release of all political prisoners, including Suu Kyi. Singapore is now chair of Asean.

To show how the junta regards Asean as no more than a nuisance, the slaughter continued unabated for days, with at least 10 more people being killed (more than a hundred according to human rights groups). More than a thousand monks have been seized in their pagodas and detained in concentration centers outside Rangoon since last week’s massacre.

The Burmese massacre has confronted Asean with its worst crisis of credibility as a regional organization that can be taken seriously in its aspirations to be a significant political and economic entity since its founding 40 years ago.

Singapore, as chair for the rest of 2007, speaks on behalf of the 10 Asean members, but its chairmanship and the position it pronounces in this crisis underline Asean’s prevarication on the case of Burma.

No less disgusting than Asean’s righteous condemnation was that of the President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who took a moral high ground in a speech at the Assembly. She said, “This is the time for Burma to return to the path of democracy and to release Aung San Suu Kyi and to involve all parties … in the democratization and the constitutional process.” Without being embarrassed, she held up the Philippines as “the most democratic country” in our region. “We have no tolerance for human rights violations at home and abroad,” she said.

These pronouncements from the more articulate Asean leaders could only have served to increase the scorn of Gen. Than Shwe’s cabal for Asean as a toothless creature.

When Ibrahim Gambari, the UN’s special envoy who had an urgent mission to end the crackdown, left Burma after four days of talks with the junta and Suu Kyi, he said he had delivered a “strong message” to the junta. But UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he could not call the mission a “success.”

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong published “an unusually severe” letter, which “strongly urged” General Shwe to “work with Mr. Gambari to try to find a way forward,” saying that the conflict in Burma “will have serious implications not only for itself (Burma) but also for Asean and the whole region.” Apparently, the junta did not listen to this appeal.

But Singapore’s dilemma, as well as Asean’s hypocrisy, was underlined by Singapore’s extensive economic relations with Burma, which have thrown an economic lifeline to the junta to blunt economic and political sanctions from the United States and the European Union, among others. Without referring to the economic relations between Burma and key players, such as China, Japan, India and Russia, Singapore’s ties with Burma are cited in the context of Asean’s weak influence in effecting political change in Burma.

Andrew Selth, a research fellow at Queensland’s Griffith University, has written in Jane’s Intelligence Review that with an estimated $2.65 billion at stake in Burma, Singapore companies “have been some of the biggest investors in Burma’s military junta.” Selth said that Singapore “has sent the junta guns, rockets, armored personnel carriers and grenade launchers.” Singapore companies have also provided computers and networking equipment for Burma’s defense ministry and army, “while upgrading the bunkered junta’s ability to network with regional commanders.”

A former assistant secretary of state for the US Bureau of Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, Robert Gelhard, has said half of Singapore’s investment in Burma has “been tied to the family of narco-trafficker Lo Hsing Han.”

Singapore is hosting Asean’s annual meeting in November, when the organization is scheduled to approve its first charter designed to make it a more effective rules-based organization. The charter was drafted in Manila this year, and was hailed as a “victory for human rights,” but due to the Asean concept of making decisions by consensus, the draft fudged provisions for sanctions to discipline member states violating human rights.

The Burmese crackdown pushes Asean to a moment of decision on the issue of transforming it into a rules-based organization with disciplinary and binding authority. This will test whether Asean members with economic interests in Burma, including Singapore and Thailand, can summon the political will to bring Burma into line with the draft’s objectives. The showdown in Singapore in November could break up Asean’s project of political integration or result in Burma’s expulsion. The second outcome appears remote.