Singapore first among ASEAN members to skip Myanmar junta-hosted military exercises

The Southeast Asian nation joined Australia, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea and the USA in declining to attend one of a series of defence ministers’ summits on counter-terrorism strategies

Singapore did not take part in an international tabletop exercise for defence ministers held in Naypyitaw last week, hosted jointly by the Russian Federation and Myanmar’s military regime.

Singapore was the only member state of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to not participate in the exercise, making it the first ASEAN member to skip one of the events.

All defence ministries in the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) Plus Experts’ Working Group on Counter Terrorism, were originally slated to participate in the exercise, held between August 2 and 4.

The working group, which has been co-chaired by Russia and the Myanmar junta since 2021, includes the defence ministries of all ASEAN member states, with several other nations participating as dialogue partners. However, the defence ministries of the United States, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea later backed out.

“Russia and Myanmar’s military regime have consistently used their co-chairmanship of these engagements to promote and justify their violence and disregard for the rule of law, and imply support by the ADMM-Plus and its members for their actions,” a Pentagon spokesperson told Myanmar Now in June, explaining the United States’ decision to boycott.

Following this boycott, the only ASEAN dialogue partners joining the activity were China, India and the group’s co-chair, Russia.

A diplomatic source told Myanmar Now that Singapore did not attend the in-person training exercise after being denied a request to join the tabletop exercise virtually.

Singapore’s defence ministry did not respond to repeated requests for comment on their decision not to participate in the tabletop exercise, and on whether Singapore will join a field training exercise scheduled for September in Russia.

In the tabletop exercise, participating militaries ran a simulated operation to defeat terrorists organising in the border regions of a mock state. The clear parallels to Myanmar’s internal conflict, in which the military junta has designated opposition groups as “terrorists,” drew criticism.

In a statement about the Naypyidaw exercise released by Russia’s defence ministry, Lt.-Gen. Mikhail Nosulev, the deputy commander of the country’s Eastern Military District commented on the exercise’s purpose.

“The fight against terrorism is currently a common task for all countries and requires common approaches. Joint work within our expert working group allows us to find these approaches, as well as directly improve ways to counter terrorists,” he said. 

ASEAN’s decision to allow the junta to co-chair the ADMM counter terrorism group has drawn opprobrium from civil society organisations, lawmakers and the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar.

Justice For Myanmar spokesperson Yadanar Maung, who welcomed Singapore’s decision not to join the tabletop exercise, condemned ASEAN’s decision to proceed with the event.

“By holding exercises with the illegitimate Myanmar junta that help raise its military capabilities, ASEAN is deepening its complicity in the junta’s ongoing war crimes and crimes against humanity. ASEAN needs to cancel the field training in Russia and exclude the junta from ADMM,” she told Myanmar Now.

In a recent visit to Indonesia, the UN Special Rapporteur Tom Andrews criticised ASEAN for allowing the Myanmar junta to participate in ADMM and called for its exclusion. He urged Indonesia not to attend if the exercise went ahead, a recommendation Indonesia has not heeded.

“These types of actions not only undermine the credibility of ASEAN but also serve to legitimise the junta and prolong the suffering of the Myanmar people,” Andrews said.

In a statement last month, the chair of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) and member of the Indonesian House of Representatives Mercy Barends also called for the junta’s exclusion from ADMM.

“It would be utterly absurd for ASEAN countries to join the Myanmar junta in military exercises when the junta has consistently shown a lack of political will or interest in abiding by the Five-Point Consensus, notably ‘the immediate cessation of violence,’” she said, referring to an agreement reached by the regional bloc in 2021 seeking an end to conflict in Myanmar.

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