By LALIT K JHA
The Irrawaddy News
NEW YORK — The regional Asean grouping, which has taken the lead along with the UN in organizing humanitarian relief work in the Irrawaddy delta after Cyclone Nargis, faces a tough challenge in dealing with military-ruled Burma, says a top US official in charge of the region.
"It's a tough challenge for the world, for the region, for Asean," Deputy Secretary of State Scot Marciel, the US's Asean envoy, said in Washington last week. A transcript of a press briefing held at the Foreign Press Center was released by the State Department on Friday.
In his first briefing to foreign media following Cyclone Nargis, Marciel said Asean has in the past tried its best to engage Burma and make things move in a positive direction.
"I think they have seen it hasn't been that successful. I don't say that critically. I mean, a lot of other approaches haven't been successful either," he said.
Marciel, however, said Asean made a strong statement following the regime's crackdown on peaceful protesters last year.
"Asean came out quite forcefully, I think, with an unprecedented statement expressing revulsion at the crackdown and urging the regime to begin to engage with the opposition, release political prisoners and move toward a political transition," he said.
He said Asean’s policy of consensus on all the body’s decisions and statements limits the possibility of any tougher actions towards Burma, which is one of its 10 members
"For Asean as an institution, to make decisions or issue statements requires a consensus, including by Burma. So that, to some extent, limits what Asean as an institution can do. But I think different Asean members have been working, I think fairly actively, trying to encourage the Burmese regime to open up," he said.
He said he appreciated the efforts of Asean Secretary-General, Surin Pitsuwan in encouraging the regime to open up to international assistance following the devastating cyclone. "I think they've achieved some success, and we welcome their efforts. I think it's been important," he said.
"We certainly hope that they will continue to encourage the Burmese to open up and to begin to grapple with their broader political issues, because it's the broader political issues that are keeping the country down."
Conceding that Asean and the US do not agree on every tactic, he said: "That's okay. Overall, I think we want them to remain active."
As Ambassador for Asean affairs, Marciel said: "We're trying to broaden our engagement with the region by building on the bilateral relations and by our existing good relationship with Asean, focusing more on engaging with Asean as an entity."
Referring to the upcoming Asean Regional Forum meeting, which will be attended by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, he said two issues involving Burma will be discussed.
"One is the response to Cyclone Nargis…how relief efforts are going and what more the Burmese authorities might do to facilitate international assistance."
"I would expect there would also be some discussion about the broader political issues that underlie the fundamental problems of Burma. Again, I don't want to try to predict how the conversation will go because it is unpredictable," he said.