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March 19, 2009

Singapore urges Myanmar to look West

Singapore urged Myanmar's military rulers to reconcile with the opposition and engage with the West, even as the junta renewed a crackdown on pro-democracy activists, reported Reuters.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told his Myanmar counterpart Thein Sein on Tuesday the city-state would "do what we can" to help the junta revive ties with the United States and Europe.

"Countries are grappling with the financial crisis, and asking themselves what is the most effective way to conduct their affairs with other regions," said Lee, whose People's Action Party has governed Singapore since independence in 1965.

"We hope Myanmar will seize this moment to take bolder steps towards national reconciliation and in engaging the international community," he said in a dinner reception speech.

The junta, which has ruled the former Burma since 1962, has refused to recognise a 1990 landslide election victory of the opposition National League for Democracy. Its leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been under house arrest for most of the past two decades.

Hours before Lee's banquet speech, an NLD spokesman said Myanmar authorities had detained five of its members in Yangon last week, but did not know why. It was the latest in a series of arrests of pro-democracy activists ahead of an election next year, the last step in the junta's "roadmap to democracy". Western governments have criticised the poll as a sham aimed at entrenching military rule.

Lee's remarks came as a UN investigator called on the junta to release more than 2,100 political prisoners and allow them to take part in the election. Tomas Ojea Quintana, UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, also urged the military to halt its use of civilians in forced labour.

Washington, whose sanctions on Myanmar include freezing assets of the ruling generals, wants the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), which includes Singapore, to press for reform and political progress in Myanmar.

But Singapore, a strong US ally and a growing centre for wealth management, has opposed sanctions on Myanmar and is believed to be home to the generals' offshore bank accounts.

Myanmar watchers interpreted Lee's remarks as reflecting a possible review in Washington of its policies towards Myanmar after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last month in Jakarta that sanctions had not worked. But critics of the regime said they were not sure if the new approach would work either.

"Singapore's request is based on an assumption that they are dealing with a rational government, which is not the case of Burma," said Sunai Phasuk of New York-based Human Rights Watch.

Critics say the junta has turned the "Rice Bowl of Asia" into one of Asia's poorest nations, but the regime says it is pursuing its own seven-step "roadmap" to democracy and shrugs off calls for reform.

On Wednesday, Singapore's state-run Botanic Gardens hosted an "Orchid Naming Ceremony" for Thein Sein, the number four in the junta's hierarchy, a ceremony that the government traditionally conducts to honour visiting dignitaries.

Three Singaporeans at the gardens tried to present a bouquet of orchids to Thein Sein to give to Suu Kyi, and called for her release. Protests are rare in Singapore and gatherings of five or more people are illegal without a police permit.

"We feel it would be more fitting for the orchid flower to be honoured in the name of Miss Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the rightful leader of Burma," the protesters said in a statement.
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