The Association on South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) was once again put to the test in the aftermath of cyclone Nargis which left 130,000 people dead in the Irrawaddy delta of Burma.

Founded in 1967, ASEAN was initially meant to freeze the brewing tensions among countries caught in the Cold War. In the process of nurturing confidence and enhancing cooperation among the members, ASEAN had to adopt the doctrines of consensus and non-interference. These two doctrines may be credited for the regional body's longevity but apparently, these have also resulted to ASEAN's isolation from the community it is supposed to serve.

While international organisations, the United Nations, and individual states, including those from the ASEAN have quickly responded to the needs of affected Burmese communities and engaged the reclusive ruling junta, it took two weeks for the ASEAN to sense the urgency of facilitating the entry of much needed relief goods and services. After the emergency meeting attended mainly by ASEAN members' foreign ministers last 19 May 2008 in Singapore, the body decided to “establish an ASEAN-led coordinating mechanism.” Details of such mechanism were not spelled out though.

Nonetheless, the UN tapped the regional body as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was determined to hold a dialogue with the generals and see for himself the devastation wrought by cyclone Nargis. Last 25 May 2008, the UN and ASEAN facilitated a pledging session where US$50 million was committed.

Work under Pressure ASEAN has long been inundated by pressures from the UN, the European Union, individual states, and international and local non-government organizations. These groups have been consistent in voicing their frustration on the junta's refusal to accept foreign relief goods and services.

A week after Nargis hit the country and the junta continued to deny entry of relief workers to the most affected areas of the delta, France proposed the application of the “responsibility to protect” doctrine. The doctrine allows the international community to intervene in a country's affairs, owing to its responsibility to protect the people, whose interests are not being upheld by the national government. This doctrine was introduced by Canada several years ago and was influenced by the Kosovo genocide in 1999.

The UN Secretary General declined to comment on applying this doctrine to Burma, insisting that he would like to work on Burma's ordeal on “purely humanitarian grounds.” He added that he would rely on the decision of the UN Security Council instead. Incidentally, Russia and China --- two permanent members of the ASEAN-- are poised not to meddle on a country's internal affairs.

The Amnesty International's Asia Pacific Forum earlier stated, “Our governments, from ASEAN countries, Japan, India, South Korea, and China are best placed to influence the Myanmar authorities to lift the blockages and allow aid, expertise and materials to reach the millions now in need. Time is of the essence if lives are to be saved.”

The Solidarity for Asian People's Advocacies (SAPA) similarly asserted that “ASEAN must play a facilitation role between the Burmese generals and international agencies to launch a sustained effort for immediate relief work as well as long-term rehabilitation and reconstruction...The tsunami response recognised that ASEAN's 'non-interference' policy is irrelevant in the face of natural disasters. ASEAN must prove that it is capable of putting effective pressure on the generals to make way for a regional response.”

One Vision, One Identity, One Caring and Sharing Community?

This Burmese tragedy comes at an auspicious time as ASEAN had just approved its Charter, which intends to make ASEAN more cohesive and responsive both in its structure and operations. In fact, among the highlights of the process leading to the Charter was the inclusion of a human rights watchdog within ASEAN.

ASEAN is also expected to further enforce its commitments. Among these are the “Declaration on Action to Strengthen Emergency Relief, Rehabilitation, Reconstruction and Prevention on the Aftermath of Earthquake and Tsunami Disaster” and the “ASEAN Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response.”

Drawing lessons from the Asian tsunami of 2004, the former provides that ASEAN, “urgently mobilise further additional resources” and “request the United Nations to mobilise the international community to support the national relief emergency programmes in the affected countries.” Meanwhile, the “ASEAN Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response” provides for “regional standby arrangements” and “joint disaster relief and emergency response operations.” Both referential documents place heavy emphasis on the sovereignty of parties. Article 11 of the Agreement, for instance, states that “Assistance can only be deployed at the request, and with the consent, of the Requesting Party, or, when offered by another Party or Parties, with the consent of the Receiving Party.”

Human Rights Watch (HRW)-Asia Brad Adams commented that “While the ASEAN initiative may turn out to be a step forward, it does not have the capacity to address all the urgent needs faced by Burma's cyclone survivors. Governments and aid agencies should not delude themselves otherwise.” HRW-Asia instead pointed to the “UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement” which states that:

“International humanitarian organisations and other appropriate actors have the right to offer their services in support of the internally displaced. Such an offer shall be considered in good faith. Consent thereto shall not be arbitrarily withheld, particularly when authorities concerned are unable or unwilling to provide the required humanitarian assistance.”

The State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) of Burma/Myanmar has repeatedly declared that it can attend to affected communities on its own. While it has delayed the issuance of visas to relief workers; denied entry to affected regions; and even confiscated relief goods, the generals invited the World Bank to the pledging session. The World Bank, for its part, clarified that it cannot provide resources to the government since the latter has been in arrears since 1998.

This episode in Burma is likely to be another missed opportunity for ASEAN to transform itself from an exclusive boys club into one that is representative of ASEAN, “the caring and sharing community.”

Sources:

Amnesty International. (12 May 2008). Burma/Myanmar: Cyclone relief- Asian governments must insist on swift action. Retrieved on May 21, 2008, from http://www.amnesty.org.uk/news_details.asp?NewsID=17753

ASEAN Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response. (26 July 2005). Retrieved on May 21, 2008, from http://www.aseansec.org/17579.htm

ASEAN Declaration on Action to Strengthen Emergency Relief, Rehabilitation, Reconstruction and Prevention on the Aftermath of Earthquake and Tsunami Disaster of 26 December 2004. (6 January 2005) Retrieved on May 21, 2008, from http://www.aseansec.org/17067.htm

Ban Ki-moon. (20 May 2008). Opening remarks at a press encounter before departing for Myanmar. UN News Centre. Retrieved on May 21, 2008, from http://www.un.org/apps/news/infocus/sgspeeches/statments_full.asp?statID=246

Bell, T. (21 May 2008). Burma cyclone: World Bank refuses loan claiming junta is in debt. UK Telegraph Retrieved on May 21, 2008, from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/burmamyanmar/1994396/ Burma-cyclone-World-Bank-refuses-loan-claiming-junta-is-in-debt.html#continue

British Broadcasting Corporation (25 May 2008). Donors pledge $50m to help Burma. Retrieved on May 27, 2008, from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/7418885.stm

Human Rights Watch-Asia (20 May 2008). Burma: Time for UN security council to act. Retrieved on May 21, 2008, from http://www.hrw.org/english/docs/2008/05/20/burma18882.htm

Macan-Makar, M. (24 May 2008). Did cyclone Nargis kill 300,000 people? IPS-News. Retrieved on May 25, 2008, from http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=42499

SAPA. (19 May 2008). ASEAN actions must reflect the urgency of situation in Burma. Focus on the Global South. Retrieved on May 21, 2008, from http://www.focusweb.org/asean-actions-must-reflect-urgency-of-situation- in-burma.html?Itemid=163

Special ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting Chairman's Statement. (19 May 2008). Retrieved on May 21, 2008, from http://www.aseansec.org/21556.htm

United Nations Refugee Agency. (n.d.) Guiding principles on internal displacement. Retrieved on May 21, 2008, from www.unhcr.ch/html/menu2/7/b/principles.htm

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