Analysts Say ASEAN Trying to Bridge Burma's Trust Issue With West
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has long had a policy of engaging with Burma, even when many countries have criticized its military government. Now, some regional political analysts credit ASEAN with helping persuade Burma to allow in foreign aid to help victims of Cyclone Nargis. Others criticize the organization for responding too late.
It took more than two weeks after Cyclone Nargis devastated the Irrawaddy Delta before ASEAN members could persuade Burma to meet to discuss aid for the storm's victims.
The isolated Burmese government up to then had allowed in just a trickle of assistance from neighbors Thailand, Singapore, China and India. It sharply restricted aid and aid workers from the United Nations and Western countries.
Mely Caballero-Anthony is an expert on ASEAN at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
"One would imagine it took a while for them [Burma's government] to open up and come to the meeting and meet the whole group," said Caballero-Anthony . "The reality on the ground is that Myanmar has been an unwilling player in the ASEAN context. And because of that it had to be take a while for ASEAN to persuade its member to open to international community for humanitarian help."
Cyclone Nargis left more than 100,000 people dead or missing, and the United Nations warns that many more could perish from disease and hunger if help remains restricted. At an ASEAN meeting on May 19, Burma agreed to let the group coordinate international relief efforts.
That led to a donor's conference Sunday in Rangoon, at which countries pledged $100 million in relief and recovery aid. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who met with Burma's leaders last week, said he believed they would allow in foreign aid workers.
While critics hit at its slow response, regional political analysts say ASEAN as a group does not have the capacity to respond to large disasters the way the United Nations does. The organization functions primarily for economic cooperation. Only in 2005, following the Indian Ocean tsunami, did it adopt an agreement obliging members to help one another in natural calamities.
But what ASEAN seems to have, that the West and the United Nations do not, is the ear of Burma's rulers, however reluctantly they listen.
"Perhaps it's easier for Burma to accept the opinion or to be persuaded by its neighbors rather than the international community," added Caballero-Anthony.
Despite tough economic sanctions, Burma has ignored Western pressure for political reforms and the release of detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
The military maintains it needs to keep tight control over most segments of society to keep the country from being fractured by ethnic division. Some experts have said the government apparently fears that foreign aid workers might undermine its rule.
Rodolfo Severino, a former ASEAN secretary-general, the group has played a role in bridging the gap between Burma and Western nations.
"The main outcome of that meeting [in Singapore] was to generate a bit more mutual confidence between Myanmar, its government and the countries are most capable of large-scale assistance," said Severino.
Severino says the focus now should be on helping the people of Burma. 1"I think the fact that ASEAN and the United Nations have jointly assumed the lead in this effort would deflate a bit the political content of these exchanges between the Myanmar government and the major donors, indirectly [though] these exchanges may be," added Severino.
Political analysts say persuading Burma on the aid issue is not likely to elicit the same response on political reform. They say ASEAN's engagement policy with Burma has failed to produce credible steps toward democracy.
Days after the cyclone, the government pushed through a referendum on its new constitution, which will continue military control.
"It's precisely because of this ineffective constructive engagement that ASEAN proposes, that's why to some extent the government of Burma is playing with them," said William Case, the director of the Southeast Asia Research Center in Hong Kong. "So if you're looking for political change, that's somehow initiated by ASEAN, I think we can forget that."
Burma joined ASEAN in 1997 - a step that many in Asia hoped would help open up the reclusive country. But since then, military had done little to ease its grip. It continues to imprison hundreds of dissidents and opposition members. And last September, the military crushed large protests over rising fuel prices, imprisoning hundreds more people.