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BURMA: ASEAN Steps in Where Others May Not Tread

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, May 30 2008 (IPS) - Four weeks after Cyclone Nargis swept through the populous Irrawaddy Delta in Burma, a regional effort to help the victims is slowly grinding into shape.

On Friday, Burma’s military regime announced that Deputy Foreign Minister Kyaw Thu would be its main representative in a tripartite core group, based in the former capital Rangoon, to coordinate the international aid effort. It marked another shift by the notoriously secretive junta, which had placed hurdles in the way of any outside intervention during the first three weeks after the cyclone struck in the early hours of May 3.

The humanitarian task force is being led by the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN), a 10-member regional bloc, of which Burma (or Myanmar) is a member. The United Nations will be the third party in this tripartite initiative, which was agreed upon during an international conference to raise funds for the cyclone victims held in Rangoon on May 25.

‘’A Herculean task has been thrust upon us, the U.N. and ASEAN, to bring humanitarian assistance for the cyclone victims,’’ Surin Pitsuwan, secretary-general of ASEAN, told journalists this week. ‘’ASEAN and the U.N. and our co-partners will not fail the victims of cyclone Nargis.’’

‘’We have been able to establish a space, a humanitarian space, however small to engage with the Myanmar authorities,’’ he added. ‘’That humanitarian space needs to be sustained through political decisions, through political flexibility.’’

These are brave words, indeed, for Surin, a former Thai foreign minister, given the way ASEAN has had to endure the troubles brought on it since Burma joined the bloc over a decade ago. ASEAN had stood by its troublesome member in the interest of regional solidarity, throwing a cloak to shield it from international condemnation and sanctions stemming from the junta’s growing list of human rights violations.

Yet at times, even ASEAN’s protective policy, driven by the principles of ‘’non-interference’’ in the domestic affairs of a member-nation, appeared to have its limits. There have been calls in recent years by some of ASEAN’s outspoken leaders to throw Burma out of the group when the abuse of the local population by the junta went too far.

ASEAN’s members include Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, in addition to Burma. It was formed in 1967, during the height of the Cold War, to stop the spread of communism in the region and to advance a free-market economic agenda. But its relevance on the international stage has waned after the end of the Cold War and the financial crisis that swept through the region in the 1990s.

No wonder some critics of the junta in the region worry that the military regime will try to abuse the goodwill ASEAN has extended to Burma in the same way that it has done before. ‘’The Burmese regime is well aware that ASEAN’s leaders will be soft on them than other governments in the international community. The junta has hoodwinked ASEAN before and it could happen again,’’ says Roshan Jason, spokesman for the ASEAN Inter-parliamentary Myanmar Caucus, a group of South-east Asian parliamentarians championing political reform in Burma.

‘’ASEAN’s credibility is now on the line by stepping into this role,’’ he added during a telephone interview from Kuala Lumpur. ‘’The regional leaders have to show political will and to act tough with the Burmese regime to achieve results. They cannot let the junta manipulate the situation by taking cover behind the policy of non-interference.’’

For now, Surin wants to give the Burmese regime, led by the reclusive strongman, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, the benefit of the doubt. It is necessary to help build confidence and trust for the ASEAN Humanitarian Task Force to make headway. ‘’We have detected a difference, we have detected a positive difference, and we hope this can be sustained,’’ he said.

A significant achievement in this regard is ASEAN convincing the regime that the relief phase since the cyclone is far from over. It put an end to the junta’s claims by the third week since Nargis that relief efforts for the cyclone-victims had ended and what was needed was financial assistance for the recovery and rehabilitation phase. The junta stated that Burma needed 10.7 billion US dollars for the rehabilitation phase.

According to ASEAN’s plans, a rapid assessment team will survey the terrain in South-western Burma that was devastated by the country’s worst natural disaster to spell out the shape of relief efforts to aid the victims. That report is due in mid-June.

Yet even such an effort is revealing of the neglect the cyclone’s victims have had to endure when set against the normal response to natural disasters in other parts of the world. ‘’By now there should have been distribution hubs up and running for relief goods,’’ John Sparrow, spokesman for the Asia-Pacific division of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), told IPS. ‘’Clean water should have been distributed. But there still is a huge shortage of clean water.’’

But for that, proper assessments of the disaster areas have to be done soon after the disaster. That was the case when the IFRC responds to post-disaster situations, such as the December 2004 tsunami. ‘’Proper assessments have not been done to help figure out the needs, unlike the tsunami,’’ Sparrow added. ‘’There are still areas where we have no access.’’

The human toll from the Cyclone Nargis ranges from 130,000 deaths to as high as 300,000 deaths. The people affected and in need of relief in the Irrawaddy Delta range from 2.5 million to four million.

Such high numbers stem from the force of the storm, whipping up wind speeds of 190 km per hour and a wall of sea water that rose 3.5 km high. It affected an 82,000 square km area that has the highest population density in the country.

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