29 May 2008

Love Thy Neighbour

By Stuart Rees and Annie Herro
Annie Herro and Stuart Rees explain why, when it comes to Burma, Asia has been able to achieve what the West can't
For the last month, the world has been disturbed by reports that Burmese leader General Than Shwe and his military junta are resisting relief efforts for the millions affected by Cyclone Nargis. Their apparent indifference to the plight of their people is the latest example of the cruelties inflicted when State sovereignty trumps human security.

The debate over how the global community should respond to the cyclone has been polarised. Many in the West are saying to hell with sovereignty - these are crimes against humanity. But for Burma's ruling military junta, sovereignty is supreme - what happens within their borders is their business. The emergency meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Foreign Ministers last week blurred the debate, raising the question: to what extent and in what areas are States willing to give up some elements of their sovereignty?

On a recent visit to Jakarta, many of the intellectuals, policymakers and government officials I spoke to believed that a natural disaster such as Nargis can provide the conditions necessary to promote broader constructive relationships among nations. In particular, many argued that the creation of a regional peace service that would respond to natural disasters is a crucial first step to ultimately develop a means of reacting to gross human rights violations. This standing service would resemble the proposed United Nations Emergency Peace Service (UNEPS), which is gaining increasing international support.

UNEPS would be a permanent standing capacity ready to respond to an emergency within 48 hours of authorisation. Such a service would be staffed by an equal balance of men and women representing different cultures and religions, with a strong focus on human rights. It would recruit doctors, nurses, multi-faith chaplains, social workers skilled in mental health, agronomists and engineers, plumbers and bricklayers. The Burmese case suggests that such a peace service would best take a regional form.

Soon after Nargis hit Burma, we saw the conditions which hindered access to the cyclone's victims. The Burmese regime's hostile reception of Sir John Holmes, the UN head of humanitarian affairs, reveals the importance of how offers of aid are presented.

Holmes, and the countries he represents, seemed to be perceived by the junta as white faces with neocolonial agendas. By contrast, Burma's decision to accept foreign aid through the ASEAN task force reveals the benefits of assistance given by "familiar faces". And it was only after Than Shwe met with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, a South Korean, that he agreed to allow in all aid workers regardless of nationality.

For all their differences, South East Asian countries share important historical and cultural features. Most are former colonies. All possess State-centric policies that exist alongside a desire to strengthen the ASEAN bloc. As Such, member States are sensitive to the cultural and political dynamics of others in the Association. As one member of ASEAN pointed out, the Association does not impose the will of the majority of member States, it tries to convince the renegade State to change its ways. This makes ASEAN a more attractive intervener than States like France and the US, whose approach is perceived by countries like Burma as condescending and "preachy".

The slow steps by which the Burmese authorities are relaxing their position on non-intervention underline the potential of regional (as opposed to global) humanitarian interventions.

Interventions that respond to natural disasters are an area in which emphasis on sovereignty appears to wane - "It's about human beings against nature" as one prominent Indonesian journalist puts it - making such interventions an important gateway to broader international cooperation. While Burma claims that intervention in the name of disaster relief is political, it is certainly less contentious than interventions that seek to respond to more obvious manmade atrocities.

While ASEAN has been called a talk shop, its success in persuading the Burmese junta to allow a foreign relief effort demonstrate that regional arrangements can achieve what the West cannot always: access to a paranoid and oppressive regime that is failing to protect its citizens. The case of Burma also reveals that developing a regional mechanism that responds to natural disasters may, in the long run, pave the way for the creation of a regional emergency peace service with an accepted mandate to prevent mass human rights abuses.

Log in or register to post comments

Discuss this article

To control your subscriptions to discussions you participate in go to your Account Settings preferences and click the Subscriptions tab.

Enter your comments here

lisa
Posted Friday, May 30, 2008 - 13:33

interesting observation

dmcarthur
Posted Friday, May 30, 2008 - 15:21

The promotion of regional mechanisms to respond to natural disasters, gross human rights abuses, and regional peace and security is fine. However, using recent events in Burma as an example of the "potential of regional (as opposed to global) humanitarian interventions" belies the facts.

Afterall, the Special ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting in Singapore on May 19 (17 days after Cyclone Nargis) only occured after ASEAN was shamed into action by the international community and a diplomatic visit by UK Minister and former UNDP head, Lord Malloch Brown.

The ASEAN coordinating mechanism that resulted was important for securing SPDC acquiesence to the principle of independent coordination and monitoring. However there was no substance to the agreement, and no reason to believe that the proposed multilateral framework of aid would be any different to the bilateral aid that Burma's neighbours had been happy to hand over to the generals in good faith.

As you note, it was the UN Secretary General's (not ASEAN's) intervention that has led to the "cautious optimism" that restrictions on aid workers will be lifted. Its a wild claim that this was because Ban Ki-Moon somehow isn't perceived to represent the same countries and neo-colonial agendas that allegedly John Holmes does.

Its also pertinent to note that at the joint UN-ASEAN Pledging Conference, it was a tri-partite core group of representatives from the UN, ASEAN and SPDC where the practicalities of multilateral aid package framework was established. Western countries have pledged the big bucks, and are willing to commit more if the junta lives up to its promises.

Let's not forget also that the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center was already established in the wake of the 2004 Tsunami. Indeed, it issued warnings to the SPDC about the approaching cyclone in the days prior to the devastation. That the generals failed to act, shows how little respect they hold for reginal early warning mechanisms - so why should it be any different for disaster response.

For all these reasons, its a false dichotomy to present Cyclone Nargis as a case study of the benefits of ASEAN mechanisms above global responses. Indeed, its a completely false dichotomy. They need each other to maximise leverage on the rogue state that is run by Burma's generals and embarasses them both.

bayliss
Posted Friday, May 30, 2008 - 15:55

ASEAN welcomed Burma in 1997, with Malaysia its major supporter. In 11 years, Burma's neighbours have exerted little positive influence on Burma's oppressive regime.

Burma was threatened with expulsion from ASEAN - by Dr Mahathir - in 2003 over Aung San Suu Kyi's continued detention.

The results - negligible. ASSK is at home for yet another 12 months.

Nargis must surely provide the most pressing reasons for accepting outside intervention to save lives, but the absence of rapid assistance has meant many people were sadly and needlessly lost.

I applaud Indonesia's and ASEAN's efforts, but question the progress of Burma's neighbours (or anyone else) to have made much impact over an extended period.

Let's hope some good comes of this terrible natural disaster.

Anonymous (not verified)
Posted Saturday, May 31, 2008 - 15:34

Without suggesting I have a finger any more firmly on the pulse than anyone else, I would offer the observation that the above viewpoints are rather indicative of western thinking.

For a start, Ban Ki Moon would have no more leverage being Asian than would a Japanese Secretary General. Beyond the west, western philosophical values mean much less than immediate relationships and tangible loyalties.

Although his name does not seem to have emerged as critical to the aid breakthrough, Thai-speaking British Ambassador Quinton Quayle appears to have played a central role, in collaboration with Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej. And they did indeed have leverage.

The most obvious is that of being neighbours joined by a volatile border; a compelling call card. But behind this was the ongoing negotiations over the proposed ASEAN-related RPEC, a cartel modeled on OPEC, but to optimise global rice prices. Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia support the concept; which is opposed by India and Vietnam; and condemned by the Philippines as anti human.

The Burmese Generals see RPEC as a lucrative initiative, but require Thailand to broker their participation.

These and other issues no doubt, enabled convincing self-interest arguments to prevail; and so compromise became possible.

As I have said, I have no way of knowing, ultimately, whose influence prevailed; but I would put money on the chip that says Ban Ki Moon was no more than a confused bystander, being pushed from behind.

I would also state, with absolute certainty, that where a diplomat, of formal status or otherwise, engages with people in their own languages; that is where the resolution will occur. The converse of that observation is that I wish to God Europeans who work in foreign countries, including journalists, would learn local languages. Their resolute refusal to do so is insulting to their hosts, and their take on events is always distorted; and more often manipulated by interpreters.