ASEAN’s role in the Cyclone Nargis response: implications, lessons and opportunities

by Yves-Kim Creac’h and Lilianne Fan

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has in the past been strongly criticised for its position on and relationship with Myanmar, in particular for its policies of ‘non-interference’ and ‘constructive engagement’. In its response to the devastation caused by Cyclone Nargis, ASEAN as an organisation took a bold step by proactively assuming a leadership role, both in convincing the Myanmar government to cooperate with the international community and in managing the response itself. In so doing, it has helped to open up an unprecedented level of humanitarian space. While much work still needs to be done, ASEAN’s approach to the post-Nargis response may well offer a model for other regional organisations. Natural disasters such as Cyclone Nargis are likely to become increasingly frequent, and expertise in responding to and managing them will be needed in the future.
ASEAN’s position on Myanmar
ASEAN was founded on 8 August 1967. Initially comprising five members –Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand – by 1999, with the accession of Cambodia, the organisation encompassed all ten of the region’s states, including Myanmar. The organisation was founded on a set of core principles: non-interference in its members’ affairs, consensus, the non-use of force and non-confrontation. These principles have governed ASEAN’s relationship with Myanmar, and have been the source of the harshest criticism of its stance towards the regime there, not only from Western governments but also increasingly from pro-democracy forces within its own member countries.
Throughout most of the 1990s, ASEAN’s engagement with Myanmar consisted of quiet diplomacy and confidence-building measures. Following the country’s accession, however, members increasingly presented their position as a realist response in light of the country’s isolation and xenophobia, rather than as tacit consent with the policies and practices of the regime. ASEAN’s strongest and most united criticism of the junta came in the wake of its brutal crackdown on civilian protesters in September 2007. Following the crackdown, ASEAN members were divided over the degree to which they should uphold the principle of non-interference in relation to Myanmar. The decision to play a major role in the Cyclone Nargis response gave ASEAN an opportunity to forge a common position. continue HPN

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