Below is a piece that I originally wrote for the Jakarta Post prior to the ASEAN emergency meeting on Monday (May 19th, 2008) in Singapore. Unfortunately, I missed the deadline on Saturday for the article to appear that Monday morning in the Post. I withdrew the article from the Post and decided to post it here instead. In the emergency meeting, the military junta hinted that it would relax its position over the international humanitarian assistance. ASEAN once again bows down to the junta that has ruled the country for more than 30 years.
In the aftermath of the devastating cyclone in Myanmar, many around the world, leaders and ordinary people, have been infuriated upon learning how the military junta handles the situation. The military junta has gestured that it would not welcome international assistance to deal with the debilitating impact of the Cyclone Nargis.
While the death toll has been shocking in number, the international community in general and the military junta in particular need to concern more on the challenging problems that are yet to come. The long term psychological and social economical impacts caused by one of the worst cyclones that ever occurred in the region are not hard to imagine.
The situation in the post-tsunami Aceh provides rich lessons if only the military junta in Myanmar is willing to learn. The people in the worst affected area will suffer from psychological trauma that will take a long time to heal. The spread of diseases caused partly by the lack of access to clean water is just another dire situation that the people of Myanmar have to face in the short-term period. A coalition of Burmese NGO also reports that the cyclone has destroyed much of the agricultural area of Myanmar, the Irrawaddy Delta area, which might cause a more devastating economic impact in the longer term if the military junta failed to confront this situation in a timely and right manner.
Yet, the military junta has shamelessly acted in a way that has frustrated the international community. It would not fully embrace helping hands offered by many countries and international agencies, which in turn delayed emergency response that the people of Myanmar in the affected areas needed so much. Such an attitude has provoked some countries to speak about the possibility for the international community to launch a coercive humanitarian action to help the people in Myanmar under the pretext of the so-called ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P) principle.
It is true that the original R2P principle, which was agreed upon by the world leaders in the 2005 UN Summit, does not concern about protecting those who are suffering from the impact of natural disaster. Nevertheless, it can be noted that the principle is about protecting people from ‘genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity’. Gareth Evans, who was influential in the drafting of the R2P doctrine, indicates that if the generals of Burma continued to deny international humanitarian assistance to help the Burmese people who are obviously suffering, it may be conceived that indeed the military junta is committing crime against humanity. Therefore, the international community has the right to intervene by force (Guardian, May 12th, 2008). This view is certainly highly debatable and may cause further stalemate.
But, the military junta sooner or later will realize that the myriad problems they are going to face in the aftermath of the Cyclone Nargis exceed its apparently limited capacity. No government can deal with the impact of a natural disaster with the scale as gigantic as the one that we have witnessed in Myanmar without helps from outside. Not only in terms of funds, Myanmar undoubtedly needs assistance from outside its border to rebuild; physically, socially and psychologically; the areas that were affected by the cyclone. That surely requires skills and expertise, which in many cases are possessed by numerous non-governmental organizations with first-hand experience in dealing with natural disasters across the globe. Unfortunately, in Myanmar we are witnessing a government that places its own regime security above all else, including human security.
In light of this fact, countries in the Southeast Asian region should not lose hope and can step in to once again persuade the military junta to welcome humanitarian aids from the international community, both from governmental as well as non-governmental actors. This is a high call for ASEAN to really fulfill its commitment to create a ‘sharing community’ in the region. As a matter of fact, this noble commitment can be found in many ASEAN documents. Now it is the right time for ASEAN not only to talk the talk, but also walk the walk.
For that matter, Indonesia, with its leadership role in the region and its experience with emergencies and humanitarian response, is in the best position to offer advice, assistance, and support to the Myanmar government with their response to Cyclone Nargis.
Indeed, if any nation in the Southeast Asian region knows what it is like to be devastated by a series of natural disasters, it is Indonesia. Perhaps more pointedly, if any ASEAN nation knows what it is like to mount a massive local and international humanitarian response, it is Indonesia.
Within days after the tidal waves of tsunami hit its coastal area, Aceh, once off limits to the outside world, was the centre of one of the world’s largest ever humanitarian operations. The Indonesian government recognizing immediately the scale of the disaster welcomed aid workers from across the archipelago and the world. Indonesia led a locally coordinated international humanitarian response that quickly reached the most vulnerable from east coast to west. Today it is recognized as a text book disaster response and a story of successful regional collaboration.
It is still fresh in our mind how many nations in the region helped Indonesia to rebuild the tsunami-affected areas. The Malaysian and Singaporean air forces assisted with helicopters and ships while many non-governmental organizations, such as Red Cross and Oxfam just to name a few, were quickly on the scene pumping clean water to thousands of people, establishing primary health care facilities and providing other life saving aid. There are striking parallels between the Indonesian experience and today’s humanitarian crisis in Myanmar. That’s why there is a chance for Indonesia to remind the military junta in Myanmar that saving the lives of its people should be placed as the highest priority. More importantly, Indonesia needs to convince the military junta that ASEAN, also with the help of the larger international community for the reason that ASEAN might not have sufficient resource of its own, is willing to help.