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ASEAN and the Generals In the Eye of A Storm

Updated On: May 27, 2008

TODAY, 27 May 2008
by Simon SC Tay

ASEAN ministers on Monday opened a door for assistance into Myanmar to help the victims of the Nargis cyclone.

This should be welcome; better late than never. Almost three weeks after the storm, little time remains to avert a second catastrophe for survivors who face the dangers of famine and the spread of disease.

Yet questions remain on how wide Myanmar’s door is open. Some also ask whether ASEAN can effectively and urgently step in to coordinate assistance to hundreds of thousands in the storm-hit Irrawaddy Delta.

If it cannot deliver, ASEAN may end up a discredited fig leaf for the generals.
Much depends on the regime in Myanmar. International observers say not enough has been done while Myanmar generals hand out provisions at neat and orderly camps in front of state cameras.

Does the ASEAN statement represent a real change among the regime’s leaders?
The text is brief but hopeful. ASEAN will lead a coordinating mechanism and form a task force under Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan. Myanmar will immediately accept medical teams from all ASEAN member states. These are important first steps.

But further steps are less certain. ASEAN expresses concern and urges that Myanmar “should” accept more international workers and the expertise of international agencies. Myanmar pledges to accept international assistance so long as aid is not “politicized”.

This term is left undefined. So countries which mix up human rights criticism of the regime with aid offers, like the USA and Europe, may continue to find the door closed to them.

Yet ASEAN says the coordinating mechanism for assistance should draw on the Indonesian experience with the 2004 Tsunami. In Aceh’s case, a previously closed society will accept humanitarian assistance from a wide range of sources, and not just ASEAN. It is unclear if the Myanmar regime would welcome such a prospect.

An international pledging conference, to be held on 25 May, will signal intentions in both Myanmar and would be donors.

Whether Myanmar’s door will open more widely depends heavily on the generals and the comfort level that ASEAN’s initial efforts can generate. For while the ASEAN statement signals a change, this seems not to be a change of heart but of tactics.

One factor that may have prompted this is the concurrent tragedy of the earthquakes near Chengdu. The Chinese provide a mirror opposite to Myanmar. Even critics of Beijing recognize the timely and high level attention they have given to the disaster, and applaud the unprecedented openness to foreign assistance.

International attention and the UN have also played a role. It is no coincidence that Myanmar belatedly declared official days of mourning just in time for the visit by UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon.

But perhaps the key factor in this change of stance has been ASEAN and key states within the group. Even if much of this diplomacy has been behind the scenes, it is clear that ASEAN has sought and been given a key role in leading the response from here on.

In taking on this role, ASEAN has put its credibility in the spotlight. It has to prove itself effective in delivering assistance, even while managing sensitivities among the generals. It can ill afford to fail. Yet it has never been a crisis manager of this type or scale. There are dangers that expectations run so high that ASEAN will be blamed as the fatalities mount in the coming weeks.

Why has ASEAN taken this upon itself ?

International expectations have certainly been part of the equation since Myanmar is a member of ASEAN. As with the human rights concerns raised after the street violence last year, while the UN must be involved, regional engagement is a critical factor.

Domestically, a number of ASEAN countries also sense a swell of concern amongst their citizens.

Humanitarian tragedy rightly evokes of shared ASEAN citizenship, as seen in the 2004 Tsunami, where sentiments flow across borders regardless of sovereignty. There is also a small but not insignificant Burmese community in some countries like Singapore and Thailand.

Such expectations can be seen in the promises to build an ASEAN Community and read in the text of the ASEAN Charter, which member states aim to ratify by the end of 2008. While it respects the principles of non interference and sovereignty, the Charter addresses the “peoples” of the region.

It would be fitting therefore that ASEAN takes a collective responsibility to work with the regime in Myanmar despite all the attendant difficulties and critical pressures of time. Despite the risk of failure, great effort must be expended. The victims in Myanmar require all the help and more, and the peoples of ASEAN are right to expect no less.

Simon Tay
About the author: 

Simon SC Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

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