How hard will neighbors push Burma (Myanmar)?

Burma said Monday it would allow in some Southeast Asian aid workers.

Tim Chong
ASIAN AID: Foreign ministers – Singapore’s George Yeo (l), Thailand’s Noppadon Pattama (c), and Burma’s Nyan Win (r) – met Monday.

With Western naval ships loaded with aid waiting at their door, and visiting UN diplomats demanding faster rescue and relief, Burma (Myanmar) agreed to accept more foreign aid from its neighbors at Monday's emergency meeting of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

While aid workers welcome any increase in aid to Burma, many opponents of Burma's military regime say Asian leaders are moving too slowly – and merely appeasing the junta in order to make business deals and strengthen their group's position in free-trade negotiations with China.

ASEAN is stalling the West by claiming "We're working on this, don't worry," and then saying, "Sorry, I haven't got there yet," says Jeff Kingston, head of Asian studies at Temple University in Tokyo. "In practice constructive engagement has been a fig leaf for ASEAN to invest in Myanmar and exploit its natural resources. ASEAN has not used their engagement in any constructive way, unless you are a businessman."

For example, at a side deal at Monday's meeting, Thailand and Burma agreed to build a seaport and pipeline in southeastern Burma away from the disaster zone.

Still, ASEAN's diplomatic efforts, as well as the perceived threat of American, French, and British warships positioned in the Andaman Sea near the Burmese delta, appear to be yielding limited results to open Burma up to more regional aid.

Burma's much-maligned government allowed UN humanitarian chief John Holmes to visit Rangoon and the hard-hit Irrawaddy Delta Sunday. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon is set to tour the areas this week.

Burma's leader, Gen. Than Shwe, made his first public appearance since the cyclone hit, inspecting camps and meeting survivors in Rangoon suburbs.

ASEAN – which includes Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam – will also hold a fundraising meeting May 25 and work on aid packages with the World Bank and Asian Development Bank.

Each member state will also send a 30-member medical team into Burma "very soon," Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda said.

Chinese, Indian, and Thai medical personnel are already on the ground there. Thailand's team is working in the Irrawaddy Delta, an exception to Burma's limiting foreign aid workers in the country to Rangoon.

Burma is "prepared to accept the expertise of international and regional agencies to help in its rehabilitation efforts," said Singapore's Foreign Minister George Yeo. But "we have to look at specific needs – there will not be uncontrolled access," he added.

Aid groups, such as Save the Children, say ASEAN's dialogue is better than the threat of Western ships bringing in supplies by helicopters and speedboats without Burma's consent.

"We're not going to criticize people [such as ASEAN foreign ministers] for trying. Anyone that is trying to talk this through gets our support," says Dominic Nutt, a spokesman in London for Save the Children.

"Force and humanitarian work don't mix. It's not a moral argument. It won't work," he continues. "If you drop food on people's heads, strong young men with guns will get it. It won't be the elderly, the children, the dying."

Yet longtime observers and key players in the region question whether ASEAN's rhetoric will result in getting food and shelter to victims. Continued delays could drastically increase the cyclone's death toll – put at more than 100,000 by aid groups and at 78,000 by the government.

David Tharkabaw, secretary-general of the Thailand-based Karen National Union, which has fought an insurgency against Burma's government for 60 years, says the junta will mislead UN diplomats visiting Burma by flying them over "showcase" areas and declaring "they can manage everything," while hiding the reality on the ground, where he says Karen ethnic minorities make up more than half of the victims.

"The UN has been delaying instead of taking decisive steps. It has been dragging too long. Many who survived the cyclone are now dying," he continues.

Mr. Tharkabaw supports an aid invasion by Western countries "if the regime still refuses to let in international aid workers." Willing countries should "go in without trying to get the opinions of others," he adds.

He says "appeasing" the regime doesn't work. They get "more self-confident that they are right. In this case ASEAN is just beating around the bush. If they just let in aid material, more than half will be stolen by the junta and its officials."

Mr. Kingston, of Temple University, says ASEAN has broken a "decade full of promises" to effect change in Burma, and repeatedly insulated Burma, Laos, and Cambodia from foreign pressure over human rights violations.

"ASEAN is held hostage to Burma. This policy of nonintervention essentially means that Myanmar has a veto over policies taken by ASEAN. They can hide behind the ASEAN umbrella," he says.

Member states "claim to work quietly behind the scenes. But they haven't shown that this works," he continues. "ASEAN's original promise in allowing in Burma was that it would bring Burma up to ASEAN standards. ASEAN has been brought down to Burma's standards."

Nyo Myint, foreign affairs chief for the National League for Democracy, the opposition party led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, says ASEAN needs to work on the humanitarian emergency, plus long-term national reconciliation and reconstruction, an approach he calls "humanitarian plus."

"Burma's generals and government are falling down right now, and ASEAN is trying to put a cushion below the regime. It's a very critical point for ASEAN," he says.

The organization is "mainly an economic bloc. But they want to increase their position to be like the European Union," he continues, adding that ASEAN will wield more influence by mediating between Burma and Western countries.

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