By Daryl Loo, 10 Oct 2007

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Singapore, one of Myanmar’s biggest investors, is under pressure from rights groups to use its economic clout to push the generals down along a more democratic path.

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, Singapore was Myanmar’s largest source of foreign funding last year with US$47.5 million in investments, followed by Russia and Britain.

Singapore is a key investor in Myanmar’s tourism sector, provides medical care for the regime’s generals and is seen as a financial centre for the Myanmar elite.

“There are not many countries that the military regime can rely on today, and Singapore is one of them,” Sann Aung, a Bangkok-based leader of the government-in-exile set up after the junta ignored the 1990 election results, told Reuters.

The city-state’s links with the junta have come under fire from rights groups and led to calls to take a tougher stance.

European Union parliamentarians visiting the island last week called on Singapore to ease bank secrecy laws and seize assets of Myanmar’s generals, or risk a proposed pact with the EU.

Burma activist groups last week urged the U.S. Senate foreign relations committee to compel Singapore banks to freeze the accounts of junta leaders, and prohibit U.S. institutions from dealing with those that refuse.

Freezing the overseas assets of Myanmar’s generals “would at least deprive the regime of the means to buy more weapons, and put pressure on it to carry out reforms,” said Debbie Stothard of the Bangkok-based Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma.

But Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong denies the generals are using Singapore as a money-laundering centre.

“We don’t play dirty money, we don’t condone money laundering. Our rules against that are as strict as any other financial centre – London, Hong Kong, New York,” Lee told CNN.

Singapore’s three banks — all of which operate offices in Myanmar — have declined comment, citing banking secrecy laws.

“Dirty List”

Analysts say that without Singapore’s expertise in areas such as airline, airport, and hotel management, Myanmar would be a much less comfortable place for its ruling elite.

Myanmar’s top international airline, Myanmar Airways International, is a joint venture between the Myanmar government and Region Air, a company owned by hotel and property tycoon Ong Beng Seng, one of Singapore’s best-connected businessmen.

Activist group Burma Campaign UK lists 10 Singapore firms on its “Dirty List” of companies for their involvement in Myanmar, including banks DBS, UOB and OCBC, and conglomerate Keppel Corp.

Yangon’s The Strand Hotel, Myanmar’s top hotel and sister to Singapore’s Raffles Hotel, is jointly owned by Myanmar’s tourism authorities and Singapore-based General Hotel Management.

The Singapore bourse is also host to the only Myanmar listed firm — Yoma, a real estate firm with close junta links.

Myanmar, too, has come to the aid of a friend in need. When Indonesia banned sand exports that feed the construction sector, general Than Shwe was quick to offer his sand and granite.

General Hospital

Singapore also gives the ageing generals access to top hospitals, where security guards shield them from the press.

Senior General Than Shwe, 73, visits Singapore for regular medical checks. Myanmar prime minister General Soe Win, 59, was treated for cancer at Singapore’s General Hospital for months before he reportedly died on October 2. Lee says denying them medical treatment would be inhumane.

“I mean, somebody is sick, he wants to come to Singapore, he needs treatment and you’re telling me that I shouldn’t treat him because he’s not a good man?” he told CNN.

Myanmar expert David Steinberg of Georgetown University told Reuters that Singapore could play a big role to end the crisis.

“(The junta) consults with Singapore leaders,” said Steinberg, adding he favored a “quiet” approach. “I think a strong stand by Singapore will be helpful. But a strong stand has to be a quiet stand. The private advice is absolutely critical.”

Lee’s father, Singapore’s first prime minister and now “Minister Mentor”, said in unusually blunt remarks that Myanmar’s leaders had pushed a “hungry and impoverished people to revolt”.

“These are rather dumb generals when it comes to the economy,” Lee, 84, said in an interview, adding a political solution has to include the military who alone have the ability to hold the country together.

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