By Clive Parker
Burma today remained the focus of a dispute over a death sentence imposed by Singapore on Australian citizen Nguyen Tuong Van, as Canberra’s Foreign Minister Alexander Downer entered the argument, saying the city-state was not hypocritical on drugs.
The case has created a media frenzy in Australia this week after the Singaporean opposition leader, Dr Chee Soon Juan, condemned his government for double standards due to its alleged involvement in Burma’s opium trade.
The leader of Singapore’s Democratic Party has called on the government not to hang Van and instead go after the “big fish,” which he says includes drug lords with strong ties to Singapore.
Chee Soon Juan’s comments were immediately picked up by the Australian media, making Rangoon the epicenter for those seeking the release of Van and the end of capital punishment in Singapore. The opposition figure has made similar statements repeatedly in the past, calling on the government to answer questions about its involvement in Burmese drug money.
However, Downer backed the Singaporean government, saying it was not guilty of hypocrisy and stressing the debate would not prevent the hanging from taking place on December 2 as planned.
“I don't think we're going to get anywhere in this discussion about trying to save Van…by suggesting Singapore is giving a nudge and a wink to drug traffickers,” Downer told The Australian.
“I don't think they are being hypocritical,” he added.
Singapore is accused of providing an outlet for drug lord Lo Hsing Han and his son, Steven Law, to launder money generated from Burma’s opium trade, which has then entered the international financial market. Lo Hsing Han—who was granted an amnesty by the Burmese authorities—owns Asia World Construction Company with his family, which built Traders Hotel in downtown Rangoon.
It is not known whether Singapore has current ties to any drug producers in Burma, although experts contacted by The Irrawaddy considered it unlikely. Its government enacted a law in 1999 that criminalizes the laundering of money made through the drugs trade, while the US State Department considers the country to have a good record on fighting narcotics.
"As a matter of policy, Singapore strongly opposes money laundering and terrorist financing,” it says.
Experts say the Singaporean government has done little to help drugs prevention in Burma, instead concentrating on hitting small-time dealers once they reach its borders. The city-state remains the largest investor in Burma, but—like most other countries—it is yet to contribute to the UN Office of Drugs and Crime, which runs the main program to eradicate opium in Burma. Australia has donated money on numerous occasions.
One political analyst based in Singapore, who requested anonymity and claimed that commenting on Singaporean politics “is more dangerous than talking about Burmese politics,” agreed with Downer that talk on Burma in this case was largely irrelevant.
“The Singapore government would not care that much about what the media wrote, but if the US government pressured it to do something about Burma, it might do something about it. Other than that, I don't think the inclusion of Burma in the debate would have any impact on this case,” he said.