BANGKOK, Oct 30 – While opposing sanctions against Myanmar in public, Singapore’s government and its banks in particular appear to be quietly distancing themselves from the ruling junta, analysts and bankers said on Tuesday.
Officially, Singapore has not deviated from the line given by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong a month ago, at the height of the junta’s bloody crackdown on democracy protests, that sanctions would be unlikely to shunt Myanmar towards political reform.
But gradually, signs are emerging of institutions in the city-state pulling back from involvement with the generals, for whom Singapore is a top medical and leisure destination – and widely believed to be home to their off-shore bank accounts.
“What’s going on behind the scenes, particularly on the financial side, is de facto sanctions,” said Sean Turnell, author of the Burma Economic Watch journal at Sydney’s Macquarie University.
The latest indication of that is Air Bagan, a small Myanmar airline on a U.S. government blacklist that will suspend flights to Singapore from Nov. 5, travel agents say.
Singapore’s Today newspaper said the final blow came when Singapore banks said they would “stop dealing with” the airline, owned by Htoo Trading, with close ties to the junta’s top brass.
“That would seem to be an indication that Singapore either is lining up behind the sanctions, or that they have other financial concerns or issues with Air Bagan,” said Victor Comras, architect of U.S. economic sanctions against Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
It is financial links to the likes of Air Bagan that have made Singapore a target for Myanmar activists and members of the U.S. Senate desperate to find a lever to use on the junta, a regime that seems to thrive on isolation.
Banking sources told Reuters that the Monetary Authority of Singapore was unlikely to ask banks to cut ties with Myanmar firms unless there were U.N. sanctions on the country.
“Without legal authority such as U.N. sanctions, it won’t be possible,” a Singapore-based banking source said.
The MAS and Singapore’s three banks, DBS Group Holdings , Oversea-Chinese Banking Corp and United Overseas Bank , declined comment.
But a second banking source said banks were taking measures on their own to restrict links with Myanmar companies on a case by case basis. “It is not a blanket ban. If a customer comes to us, we can’t turn him away,” the banker said.
Activist group Burma Campaign UK lists 10 Singapore firms on its “Dirty List” of those with involvement in Myanmar, including the three banks and conglomerate Keppel Corp. (Pseudonymity: See below for information on the 10 Singapore firms)
Foreign Minister George Yeo said on Monday Singapore would act according to international agreements.
“We are an international financial centre. Whatever policy we apply to Singapore banks, we must apply to all banks operating in Singapore,” he told reporters.
The police announced last week Singapore would step up efforts to detect money laundering from Nov. 1 by requiring anyone carrying or transferring more than $20,650 in or out to submit a report to immigration authorities.
While Washington and Brussels have tightened the screw gradually, Singapore has become one of the biggest investors in the former Burma. Its three banks all have offices there and firms have poured money into hotels and tourism.
Singapore senior statesman Lee Kuan Yew told an American columnist he rued advising hotel companies to go in. “They have sunk in millions of dollars there and now their hotels are empty,” he said. He also called the generals “rather dumb”.
(Additional reporting by Saeed Azhar in Singapore and Darren Schuettler in Bangkok)
Source: Burma Campaign UK Dirty List
CNA Group Ltd
CNA is as Sesdaq listed company headquartered in Singapore. It was, in 2005, awarded a contract for the expansion of Yangon International Airport. Under the contract C.N.A. will design, supply, install and commission 24 engineering systems for the airport terminals. The project is to be completed by early 2007 but the CEO has commented “we will continue to expand our presence in the region (Myanmar).”
DBS Group Holdings Ltd
DBS Group Holdings Ltd is the holding company of DBS bank and is one of the largest companies in terms of market capitalisation listed on the Singapore Exchange, with total assets amounting to over S$180 billion. Included in its international banking network is a representative office in Burma.
Ginnacle Import-Export Pte Ltd
Ginnacle is a company located in Singapore involved in the sales and marketing of Burmese teak lumber, decking and furniture. The Burmese regime owns all teak plantations in Burma and teak sales earn the regime millions of pounds every year.
Golden Aaron Pte. Ltd
Golden Aaron Pte. Ltd. is a Singaporean oil corporation. The company is part of a consortium which in 2005 signed three production sharing contracts with state run Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise, to explore for oil and gas in Burma, both on and offshore. It is a project which will undoubtedly provide the Burmese junta with a large and valuable source of income. The same consortium signed similar deals in 2004.
Singapore listed Interra Resource’s principal activities are the exploration and operation of oil fields for the production of crude petroleum. It operates in Indonesia and Burma. In Burma its subsidiary Goldwater Oil was the first foreign oil company to extract oil in Burma. It is currently engaged in oil and gas exploration and production through its jointly controlled venture with Geopetrol called Goldpetrol.
Singapore’s Keppel Corporation is a multinational corporation with interests in three key business areas: Offshore and Marine, Property and Infrastructure. Its property wing – Keppel Land has a presence in eight Asian countries including Burma where it owns the Sedona Hotels in Yangon and Mandalay.
Kerry Logistics Group/Kuok Group
Kerry Logistics is a goods transport logistics company with branches in 12 countries, including the UK. Kerry Logistics also operates in Burma, facilitating the export of Burmese goods. Kerry Logistics is part of the Singaporean conglomerate, Kuok Group.
OCBC Bank is Singapore’s longest established bank, and is today one of Asia’s leading financial services groups with gross assets of S$136 billion. The group has a global network of more than 310 branches and representative offices in 15 countries including Burma.
Shangri-La Hotels is a Singaporean hotel company. It operates the Traders hotel in Rangoon. Aung San Suu Kyi has asked tourists not to visit Burma because it helps fund the regime and gives it legitimacy. Forced and child labour was used to develop many tourist facilities. In the UK, Shangri-La plans to operate an opulent 5 star hotel in the proposed ‘shard of glass’ tower block at London Bridge.
United Overseas Bank Group
The United Overseas Bank was founded in 1935 and is today a leading bank in Singapore and a dominant player in Asia-Pacific. As of 31 December 2005, the UOB Group had total assets of S$145.1 billion and shareholders’ equity of S$14.9 billion. UOB has a global network of branches, offices and subsidiaries, one such office being in Burma. UOB also has diversified interests and through its subsidiary United Overseas Land the group operates the Park Royal Yangon hotel.