CYCLONE NARGIS AFTERMATH
Asean bridges the differences
By Rodolfo C. Severino, For The Straits Times
May 22, 2008
ASEAN foreign ministers met in Singapore earlier this week to discuss the situation in Myanmar following the devastation wrought by Cyclone Nargis. They had set out to do three things.
First, they were to update one another on the situation.
Second, they were to hear the report of the Asean Emergency Rapid Assessment Team that had been working in Myanmar since May 9.
Third, they were to coordinate the assistance that several Asean member countries had extended to Myanmar. They were also to see how Asean aid could fit into the larger international effort, an effort that itself needed coordination.
A fourth purpose of the ministers' meeting, in the minds of many, was to see how Asean could help sort out the disagreements between the United States and some European countries, on one side, and the Myanmar government, on the other, over the role of foreign nationals, including military personnel, within the Irrawaddy delta disaster area.
The donor governments were insisting that their own people handle the aid distribution. But the Myanmar authorities seemed to be suspicious of the political motives of the donor governments, many of which had been expressing hostility towards them for years.
The Asean ministers' meeting did succeed on all these counts. Nevertheless, the observation of some that the meeting should have taken place earlier was valid.
Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo himself acknowledged this.
'We wished it could have been done sooner,' he said. 'But given the magnitude of the disaster and the decisions taken by the (Myanmar) government, we are happy to have reached this point today. Better late than never.'
The ministers heard from their Myanmar colleague not only a report on the situation and the extent of the damage, but also of his government's positions on the issues raised by Asean and others in the international community.
The ministers also received the report from the Emergency Rapid Assessment Team. It recommended closer coordination between aid workers and the Myanmar government, the deployment of specialised equipment and personnel from the global community, the immediate delivery of building materials and a mechanism for the urgent supply of clean water.
The team also called for the immediate provision of health care, ensuring the capacity of the farmers in the Irrawaddy delta to plant and harvest rice, and the quick establishment of temporary schools.
Mr Yeo, who chaired the meeting, said at its conclusion: 'Myanmar is...prepared to accept the expertise of the international and regional agencies to help in its rehabilitation efforts.' But he warned: 'International assistance to Myanmar, given through Asean, should not be politicised. On that basis, Myanmar will accept international assistance.'
The ministers agreed to set up a task force, headed by Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan, to 'work closely' with the United Nations and the Myanmar government in an 'Asean-led mechanism'.
On the same day the ministers met, Asean and the UN announced they would jointly convene a ministerial-level pledging conference in Yangon on Sunday.
The Asean ministers succeeded, late though they may have been, in taking the lead in the global effort to help the victims of Cyclone Nargis. They seem to have broken the impasse between the political imperatives of some donor states and the suspicious outlook of the Myanmar authorities.
Asean is mobilising the modest resources of its member countries and taking the lead in coordinating the substantial contributions of the rest of the international community.
The writer, a former Asean secretary-general, is head of the Asean Studies Centre at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.