Editorial: ASEAN’s shame
A month after the storm that wrought havoc on Burma (Myanmar) and killed over 130,000 people, over 2 million Burmese citizens remain at risk. The international community had responded readily, offering both rescue teams and relief aid. But in the first three weeks of the deepening humanitarian crisis, the military dictatorship that has controlled Burma since 1962 spurned all forms of foreign assistance. It changed its mind only after United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon visited Burma and personally negotiated the terms of access with junta leader Than Shwe.
It has since become clear, however, that regardless of the junta’s promises, foreign relief remains unwelcome in Burma. This must be due to the junta’s fear of foreign intervention and its brutal disregard for the welfare of its own people. (It even took advantage of the tropical cyclone’s chaotic aftermath to extend opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest.)
Last week, a French naval vessel sailed from Burma after being refused entry into the country one last time; it had to leave its cargo of relief aid with the United Nations in Thailand. And today, four US Navy ships will leave the area too, save for several heavy-lift helicopters it will temporarily base in Thailand, after the American government’s offer of help was rejected for perhaps the 15th time.
“Over the past three weeks we have made at least 15 attempts to convince the Burmese government to allow our ships, helicopters and landing craft to provide additional disaster relief for the people of Burma,” the commander in chief of the US Pacific Command, Admiral Timothy Keating, said. “I am both saddened and frustrated to know that we have been in a position to help ease the suffering of hundreds of thousands of people and help mitigate further loss of life, but have been unable to do so because of the unrelenting position of the Burma military junta.”
Reuters reported from Bangkok that Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej had told US Defense Secretary Robert Gates over the weekend the Burmese junta’s reason for rejecting foreign military help: because (according to Reuters) “it feared it could be seen as an invasion.”
The army of American relief-bringers that descended in parts of Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami could also have been seen as an invasion; in fact it did not escape criticism from some Indonesians, especially in the context of the growth of fundamentalist Islamic movements in the world’s largest Muslim nation. But Indonesia’s government welcomed the assistance, helping thousands of lives in the process.
To be sure, Indonesia is an emerging democracy, and Burma remains as one of the world’s last totalitarian states. But both countries belong to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The members of ASEAN could have prevailed on Burma to open its doors temporarily to foreign aid (and to the military organizations needed to transport it).
We note with great regret that it was diplomatic pressure from the United Nations that prompted the junta to open the gates (ever so slightly) to foreign aid—regret, because it should have been ASEAN applying the pressure. Indeed, it should be ASEAN’s role to keep the pressure on, to ease the entry of more relief goods into the country.
But in the face of one of the worst crises in ASEAN history, the association is being sucked into the vortex of irrelevance.
We realize that diplomacy has only a limited effect on a dictatorship like Burma’s. We acknowledge that the Burmese junta’s decision in 2005 to vacate ASEAN’s rotating presidency in favor of the Philippines was the result of some furious back-channeling. We recognize that, for a junta like Burma’s, an international honor like that of ASEAN’s rotating presidency pales into insignificance beside the imperative of regime survival. But surely ASEAN can make the case to Burma to allow non-regime-threatening humanitarian aid.
If Burma’s membership in ASEAN does not allow other members to help in times of great calamity, why join in the first place?