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Redemption time for Asean and Burma

History will pass judgement on all Asean leaders and peoples over the tragedy unfolding in Burma in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, and it will be very unkind.

No Asean leader wants to be grouped in the company of Burma's thugs, and now more than ever they have to take a stand. Will they support the junta as it perpetrates one of the most serious collective crimes against humanity and stymies the efforts to save the helpless victims, whose only crime has been to tolerate these heartless generals for so long?

Both Asean and Burma can simultaneously redeem themselves for whatever misjudgements and policy errors they have committed collectively and individually since the country was admitted to the grouping in 1997. Nargis and its disastrous aftermath could have a healing effect if both parties choose to do the right thing quickly and launch a sustained effort to provide humanitarian aid to the victims. Long-term rehabilitation and reconstruction of the 24 million-plus Burmese people affected must be the top priority.

Asean is working with various international agencies, including the World Bank and UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, on long-term rehabilitation programmes. Within the grouping, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand are prepared to plunge into whatever rescue effort might be needed. However, support from newer members such as Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia has been conspicuous by its absence, even though they are the junta's biggest backers in normal times. These countries are strong advocates of the non-interference principle. As for the Philippines, it is not in a position to help as it has to concentrate on its domestic food crisis.

Asean secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan is doing what he can to coordinate the grouping's relief efforts. Quite frequently, he has to improvise his initiatives and muster support from whatever sources are available, including the private sector. The Nippon Foundation was the first to respond by providing US$100,000 (Bt3.2 million) to the newly set up Asean Cooperation Fund for Disaster Assistance.

In a telephone interview over the weekend, Surin expressed the hope that the junta would respond positively to his letter, sent to the Minister for Foreign Affairs Nyan Win and Minister for Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement Maj-General Maung Maung Swe, appealing for quick admission of Asean relief and rescue teams. He also hopes that Burma will allow Asean to lead the rehabilitation effort.

In early January 2005, two weeks after the tsunami, Asean leaders held an emergency meeting in Jakarta to assess the situation and show solidarity with Indonesia and Thailand. In July 2005 Asean signed the Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response to highlight the importance of regional cooperation in coping with natural disasters. But this important document has not been put into effect till now.

In the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, large-scale, uninterrupted international and Asean-led assistance helped to alleviate the hardships of the victims and speed up the recovery.

Now, 10 days after the deadly cyclone struck, the Burmese people are still desperately awaiting supplies of fresh water, food, medicine and temporary shelter. While Western countries have put aside their political differences with the junta and focused on providing emergency relief, it has been the regime that has again placed politics ahead of the needs of the people. Tonnes of undelivered supplies are awaiting permission to be flown into the country from various airports in the region. Hundreds of international relief workers have been denied entry visas.

In 1999, it was at Indonesia's invitation that Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand sent peacekeeping forces to East Timor. Although Indonesia wanted to have a collective Asean peacekeeping force, the grouping lacked consensus. The same spirit also prevailed in 2005 during the peace process in Aceh, when EU officials joined Asean peace monitors.

But due to their continuous intransigence, the Burmese junta's generals did not have the courage to call on their Asean colleagues for a consultation on how best to help the victims and reconstruction efforts. It would be tantamount to an admission of their failure to provide sufficient early warning and adequate emergency assistance. Burma's membership of Asean has been troublesome. Rangoon skipped its turn as the Asean chair in 2006, citing domestic problems. The violent crackdown on protests by monks last September further worsened ties with Asean and drew the grouping's strongest condemnation yet. Two ministerial meetings to be held in Burma in coming months have been relocated.

It would be wise for the junta to respond positively to Surin's appeal for no-nonsense admission of Asean relief teams. Asean could also lead the rehabilitation effort as it did in Cambodia, by coordinating and forging alliances with key international organisations.

Otherwise, the members of UN Security Council, especially the

United States, the United Kingdom and France, could initiate some form of UN-sanctioned resolution to force Burma to open up to foreign assistance. French Foreign Minister Bernard Koucher's invocation of the concept of responsibility to protect could be used for further action.

Never before have the fates of Asean and Burma been so intertwined. They will either swim or sink together.

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