Story by Ching Ann Jie for The Online Citizen
When Mr Moe Kyaw Thu took part in a protest to support the Burmese people’s struggle for freedom in November 2007, he did not realise that he was putting his own future in Singapore at stake.
Mr Moe is now racing against time. His work permit expires on 20th January and all his earlier three appeals to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) for extension have been rejected. He has appealed to the President and the Prime Minister of Singapore in a last ditch attempt at trying to avoid being deported.
In November 2007, Mr Moe had taken part in the Orchard Road protest by about 40 Burmese nationals. The protest was held at the same time that Singapore, the chair of ASEAN then, was hosting the ASEAN Summit at the Shangri-la hotel. The protesters had marched down Orchard Road, wearing red t-shirts and holding placards calling for ASEAN and the UN special envoy Professor Ibrahim Gambari to take a harder stance towards the Burmese military junta. (See here.)
More than one year on, Mr Moe, who has not been warned or called up by the police for any investigation with regards to the protest, is being asked to leave Singapore. In all his appeals to the MOM, he was not given any reasons why his work permit was not being renewed. The only answers he has received from the ministry were terse, such as the one given to him on 16 December last year. It said simply:
We have reviewed your appeal but regret that it is not successful. Our decision to reject your appeal still stands.
Rejection after rejection – but no reason given
Mr Moe, 35, has been working in Singapore since 1997 with Sembawang Engineers and Constructors Pte Ltd. He is currently involved as a site supervisor (purchasing and administration) with the LTA’s Circle Line (Stage 5) project.
Mr Moe’s problems started in November 2008, when his applications for a S-pass and a renewal of his work permit were rejected. No reason was given for this rejection, even though his employer was willing to extend the term of his employment.
He appealed to MOM in an email dated 25 November 2008, stating that he felt that he was “being punished under a generalised misunderstanding” with the Overseas Burmese Patriots (OBP) – of which he is not a member. Neither is he a member of any Burmese organization. Unlike the members of the OBP, Mr Moe did not have his particulars taken down by the police, and has never been called to the police station for an interview. (Members of the OBP have encountered problems in having their permits renewed, as documented in yawningbread.org)
This appeal was rejected.
Still determined, Mr Moe sent another email on 16th December, asking for “compassionate support to rescue my life from ending in a Burma jail” as his picture and name had been prominently featured in newspapers and video clips about the May 2008 referendum, where more than a thousand Burmese visited their embassy in Singapore to cast their votes. Mr Moe wrote that he feared he would be charged by the military junta for disrupting the referendum and public tranquility, or violating the press law if he returns to Burma.
This appeal was rejected, and again, no reason was given.
Together with his friend, Mr Moe headed down to the Ministry of Manpower on the 2nd of January 2009 to personally appeal to the authorities. They met an officer there and spoke for 45 minutes about the problems he would face by leaving Singapore. Mr Moe says the officer confided that she could not share the reason why his pass could not be renewed. She then told him to send another appeal, saying that MOM would reply accordingly.
In his last appeal to MOM dated 3rd January, Mr Moe asked to be allowed to stay in Singapore for a period of 6 months to a year so that he could arrange for relocation to another country.
This appeal was rejected once more without explanation.
“Contempt for the law” but no prosecution?
The authorities’ press release on 12 January about the arrest of the two activists (see here and here) who protested in support of the two Burmese finally gave some concrete reason for the non-renewal of work permits for Mr Moe and his friend, Mr Win Kyaw, who is also being asked to leave Singapore. (Read MHA and MOM’s press release here.) It stated,
“They have shown in their actions and attitude a wilful disregard and contempt for the law and the Singapore authorities.”
Mr Moe does not deny his involvement in the Orchard Road protest, the candlelight vigil outside the Myanmar Embassy (both in 2007), and other events. But he questioned the authorities’ press statement, saying, “If we broke the law, why don’t they bring us to court?” he asked. “It’s not fair. If they mention the law, they should charge us.”
“In September 2007, after the PM and foreign minister’s announcement, we thought the Singapore government was helping us to support [the] pro-democracy [movement],” he says of the public statements by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Foreign Affairs Minister George Yeo, who had said:
… we could not stay silent when the Government violently cracked down on peaceful demonstrators including Buddhist monks. ASEAN would have lost all credibility otherwise. Developments in Myanmar cast a pall on the entire region and have been raised at the UN Security Council. ASEAN’s policy of non-interference cannot be rigidly applied when internal developments in a member country affect the rest of us. (Source)
What Mr Moe cannot understand is why the government renewed the work permit of his friend, Mr Win, in January of 2008 if, as the MOM and MHA said in its latest press release, that they had shown “contempt for the law.”
Mr Moe asks why it has taken one year for the authorities to take action. He also questions whether such actions were arbitrary and selective. He pointed out that of the 40 who took part in the 2007 protest, some were called up for police interviews, others were not called up at all, while now some are having their work permits not renewed for taking part in the protest. But none have been charged under the law. “Why don’t they charge all 40 who took part in the protest?” he asks. “Why not treat everyone equally?”
The Ministry of Home Affairs, in August 2008, had said that some Burmese had “persistently ignored police warnings in the past year”.
Minister of Home Affairs, Mr Wong Kan Seng, had cited the “persistent defiance of the laws”, in September 2008, by the Burmese as one of the reasons why the work permits of some Burmese had not been renewed.
“If we broke the law, why not charge us in 2007?” Mr Moe asks. “Their words and actions are different.”
“I want to respect the law,” Mr Moe says. “If I break the law. I still want to go under the law. If they really want to do it by law, they charge us and our lives can go on.”
He stressed that the 2007 protest was a peaceful one and that the protesters had obeyed police instructions when approached. (See Straits Times report.)
All he is hoping for now is for the President and the Prime Minister to grant him his request – to remain in Singapore for 6 to 12 months so that he has time to look for another country to go to. “My return to Burma is of great concern affecting my life, my family, friends… prison for decades would be the severe result,” he said in his letter to the President and the PM.
Mr Moe has already booked an air ticket while he awaits an answer from the Istana. He is unsure of his future plans.
“Singapore is my second home,” he says, having lived here for 11 years. “You can say we are part of Singapore.”
He hopes to return to Burma one day under different circumstances. “I love my country. My dream is to live in my country,” he tells me. “A fully democratic country.”
Mr Win Kyaw, 39, has been in Singapore for 13 years and worked as an aircon technical officer at Nanyang Polytechnic. He too had taken part in the November 2007 protest but his application to renew his one-year work permit was approved in January 2008. Like Mr Moe, he had taken part in the protest as an individual and not as a member of any organization. In the wake of the destruction of cyclone Nagis which struck Burma in May 2008, Mr Win donated 10 per cent of his monthly salary to the victims.
His work permit expired on January 14.
He has left for Cambodia with his wife, who is a Singapore permanent resident.