Thursday, 24 July 2008

Asia's premier security forum begins in Singapore

Singapore (Earth Times)- Asia's top security forum began its annual meeting on Thursday to discuss measures that will make member- countries more responsive in dealing with the challenges in the region, especially in the area of disaster response. Foreign ministers of the 27-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum (ARF) were to focus on improving disaster planning and response in the wake of the deadly cyclone that devastated Myanmar and the earthquake that wrecked havoc in China.

The group was also scheduled to discuss concrete and practical cooperation among member countries in dealing with common security challenges.

ARF spokesman Andrew Tan said the recent calamities that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives in Myanmar, China and the Philippines pushed emergency planning and disaster response to the top of the agenda.

Tan said a joint civilian-military disaster relief exercise is expected to be considered, among other measures.

Although ARF foreign ministers adopted a statement on disaster management in 2006, two years after the Asian tsunami that killed 220,000 people, aid workers noted little else had emerged from the group regarding emergency relief.

The ARF includes the 10 members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) plus Australia, Canada, the European Union, New Zealand, the United States, Russia, Papua New Guinea, East Timor, Pakistan, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Mongolia, Bangladesh, Japan, China and India.

Tan said North Korea and Myanmar will be discussed in the day-long meeting with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expected to brief the other ministers on the outcome of the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear programme that took place Wednesday.

US lawmakers consider Olympic rights message to China

By P. Parameswaran

WASHINGTON (AFP) - A resolution was introduced Wednesday in the US House of Representatives asking China to end human rights abuses and its support for tainted governments in Sudan and Myanmar in line with "Olympic traditions of freedom and openness".

The resolution, proposed by the Democratic head of the House of Representatives foreign affairs committee, Howard Berman, is to be discussed and possibly voted on Thursday before it is sent to the House floor.

It called on Beijing "to immediately end abuses of the human rights of its citizens, to cease repression of Tibetan and Uighur citizens, and to end its support for the governments of Sudan and Burma (Myanmar)."

This, it added, was "to ensure that the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games take place in an atmosphere that honors the Olympic traditions of freedom and openness."

The 12-point resolution also called on President George W. Bush, who is to attend the games opening ceremony, to make a "strong public statement" in Beijing on China's human rights situation and meet with families of jailed "prisoners of conscience."

Bush was also asked to seek to visit the troubled Tibet and Xinjiang regions while in China to attend the games.

The resolution also sought direct talks between Beijing and the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader.

Hopes that Beijing would polish up its human rights record in the run up to the games have been "short-lived," Berman said during a House hearing Wednesday entitled "China on the Eve of the Olympics."

Reporters Without Borders announced in its annual report on China that in 2007 the government "did everything possible to prevent the liberal press, Internet users and dissidents from expressing themselves."

A recent poll by the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China found that 67 percent of foreign journalists felt China was not keeping its promise to allow freedom of reporting, Berman said.

He also cited China's deadly crackdown on protests in Tibet in March and the arrest in December of Hu Jia, a leading fighter for human rights, health care and the environment.

Beijing's support for Robert Mugabe's hardline regime in Zimbabwe was also raised, especially its veto of a UN Security Council resolution that would have imposed an arms embargo on Zimbabwe and travel and financial restrictions on the leader and other senior officials.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the ranking Republican member in the House foreign affairs panel, said Beijing had ahead of the Olympics "intensified its brutal crackdown on political dissidents and activists.

"One would wish that the motto of this year's Olympics, 'one world, one dream,' could ring true," she said. "Unfortunately, when it comes to the pursuit of democratic values and human rights, we remain a world divided with a dream unfulfilled."

Ros-Lehtinen also claimed Beijing had initiated "broad and sweeping measures to silence internal criticism," allegedly detaining hundreds of practitioners of the Falun Gong spiritual sect and members of other organized movements.

"The number of reported raids and summary executions continues to rise, and the regime has even taken violent measures to discourage North Korean refugees from seeking asylum in China," she said.

Letter to donors on reconstruction after Cyclone Nargis

Relief Web

Human Rights Watch remains deeply concerned about the dire plight of Burmese severely affected by Cyclone Nargis, which struck Burma’s Irrawaddy Delta on May 2-3, 2008. The United Nations estimates that the cyclone left at least 140,000 persons dead or missing and that approximately 2.4 million more were severely affected, many of whom are still in need of urgent and sustained humanitarian assistance.

Human Rights Watch recognizes the strong and committed role played by international relief agencies and organizations in responding to the crisis and the difficulties of operating in an environment where there is little infrastructure and many government barriers. We support the continued efforts by international and Burmese organizations and individuals to respond to the disaster.

The Burmese authorities’ reaction to the cyclone shocked the world. Instead of allowing humanitarian assistance to be delivered urgently to survivors, as did countries affected by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the Burmese military government prevented international humanitarian agencies from entering the delta during the crucial first weeks after the cyclone. An untold number of people died and suffered needlessly as the junta treated the cyclone as a national security problem instead of a natural disaster, demonstrating the shocking disregard that Burma’s ruling generals hold for the welfare of their own people.

While the government has improved its cooperation with aid agencies, the authorities continue to obstruct humanitarian relief efforts in various ways. More than two months after the cyclone, just 1.3 million out of the 2.4 million Burmese severely affected have received any form of international humanitarian assistance. While restrictions on international relief workers visiting affected areas have been eased, official permission to travel to the delta still takes many days and does not allow the full access required to reach all at risk.

From Relief to Reconstruction

Even when the immediate needs for food, temporary shelter, clean water, and medical assistance have been met, major efforts will be necessary to help people rebuild their lives and livelihoods. The cyclone swept away entire villages and hundreds of thousands of survivors have lost their homes. The United Nations estimates that between 77 to 85 percent of houses in Bogale and Lapputa townships were completely destroyed. Public infrastructure, including roads, bridges, schools, hospitals, and other essential services, have largely disappeared in many areas. The rice cultivation paddies of the Irrawaddy Delta have been inundated with salt water and require a massive rehabilitation effort. Livestock populations, including the water buffaloes used for rice cultivation, have been decimated. Rehabilitating the Irrawaddy Delta region will require a massive reconstruction effort, including the financial support of the international community.

The Tripartite Core Group (TCG)—comprising the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the United Nations and the Burmese ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC)—has completed its needs assessment of the affected areas and presented its formal findings at a meeting in Singapore on July 21. The total cost of relief and reconstruction was estimated at US$1 billion. On July 10 a Revised Flash Appeal for humanitarian assistance was raised from an initial US$201 million to US$481 million for relief operations lasting until April 2009. For the 13 UN agencies and 23 international humanitarian organizations involved in operations in the cyclone-affected areas, adequate funding is urgent and crucial to alleviate suffering and prepare the way for reconstruction.

Human Rights Watch has long supported humanitarian aid to Burma so long as it is provided in an accountable, transparent and principled manner. Unfortunately, the Burmese authorities have long refused to allow aid to be provided in this way.

As the donor and humanitarian community move towards considering support for major reconstruction efforts in the cyclone-affected regions of Burma, Human Rights Watch believes it is of utmost importance that clear principles be established for the provision of aid. Aid provided without respect for clear principles—as detailed below—and without careful monitoring, will invariably be misused and fail to meet the needs of cyclone victims.

The greatest obstacle faced by the international community in addressing the large-scale reconstruction needs of the Irrawaddy Delta is Burma’s abusive military leadership. The Burmese government has a long record of severe human rights violations against its own people, which have repeatedly been raised at the UN Security Council, the Human Rights Council (and its predecessor the Commission on Human Rights), and other international bodies. Many abuses previously reported will directly impact on the reconstruction effort, such as the widespread use of forced labor, documented by the International Labor Organization (ILO) and other independent international organizations.

In order to ensure that future reconstruction meets the needs of the affected population and does not contribute to further human rights abuses, donors should adopt the following basic principles when planning, funding and implementing reconstruction projects in Burma:

- Insist that the continuing humanitarian needs of the affected population are immediately addressed. Soon after the cyclone, the Burmese government claimed that the “emergency phase” of the crisis had been completed and that the focus should shift to long-term reconstruction. This view reflected not only the military leadership’s disregard for the welfare of the affected population, but its own political and financial interest in being the recipient of multi-million dollar donor-funded infrastructure development projects. As more than one million of those affected by the cyclone have still not been reached by international humanitarian agencies, the donor community should insist that the immediate humanitarian needs of the population be addressed before embarking on large-scale reconstruction efforts.

- Insist on unimpeded humanitarian access for local and international humanitarian organizations to the affected population and to determine reconstruction needs. Despite promises made nearly two months ago by the military junta to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the government continues to place significant obstacles in the path of international humanitarian agencies and local volunteer organizations in meeting the needs of the affected population. Two months after the cyclone, international humanitarian efforts remain severely impeded and far less effective than after other large-scale disasters, such as the response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the May 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, China. While the government has granted 1,670 visas to aid workers from UN agencies, private nongovernmental organizations and ASEAN officials, many humanitarian relief professionals lose crucial time waiting for official permission to travel and are still prohibited from spending extended time in the delta. The authorities have also arbitrarily detained and harassed some local volunteers, such as the prominent comedian Zargana. The limited reach of international aid is almost entirely due to obstacles created by the government. The donor community should continue to insist on unimpeded access for humanitarian workers to the affected population, and make further assistance contingent on greater access and a removal of obstacles. The Burmese government has requested billions of dollars in reconstruction assistance but has provided almost no documentation to support its request. In order to accurately assess the reconstruction needs, countries considering pledges should insist on full and unimpeded access to affected areas to do their own independent assessments of reconstruction needs. The Post-Nargis Joint Assessment (PONJA) conducted by ASEAN, Burmese officials, and UN officials, is an important step towards an accurate assessment of the reconstruction needs, but further assessment efforts will be required.

- Ensure that all internationally funded reconstruction activities be conducted by independent humanitarian and development organizations, rather than by providing funding directly to the Burmese government, and that local participation be monitored by the donor. Many donors have long refused to provide aid directly to the government because of grave concerns over widespread human rights violations, corruption, and a lack of accountability and transparency in spending of donor funds. In recent years The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and Medecins Sans Frontieres (France) terminated their programs because of excessive government interference in aid activities. In light of these concerns, reconstruction funding should not go directly to the government, but should be conducted by qualified independent organizations that can be adequately monitored by the donor. Donors should insist that implementing organizations be freely allowed to recruit and hire local staff, and respond promptly should the authorities seek to intimidate or otherwise improperly interfere with local staff. Donors should take sufficient measures, including the creation of independent structures within Burma, to monitor aid to ensure that it is not diverted to the authorities.

- Monitor reconstruction efforts to deter previously documented human rights abuses, such as forced labor, forced relocation and land seizure. The Burmese government has a long history of human rights abuses carried out in pursuit of self-defined “development” projects. Villagers in Burma have had their land forcibly confiscated and have been conscripted for forced labor in road construction and development of biofuel and hardwood plantations. In the aftermath of the cyclone, the government has forcibly relocated thousands of displaced persons, at times placing them beyond the reach of humanitarian assistance. Donors should carefully design and monitor reconstruction projects to deter the government from using such abusive practices, particularly in the rehabilitation of infrastructure and the rice paddies, where the danger of forced labor practices are greatest. The donor community should ensure that international monitoring organizations like the ILO have sufficient capacity to monitor reconstruction projects.

- Consult with affected communities, ethnic minorities, religious communities, and a broad range of civil society groups when considering, designing, and implementing reconstruction projects. The Burmese government has a long history of disregarding the voices of civil society and the needs of the population in all facets of governance, and with development projects in particular. It considers independent views as a threat to its monolithic rule. Donors should set a strong and principled example in determining reconstruction needs by consulting a wide spectrum of individuals and groups, including local communities, ethnic minorities, religious communities, and a broad range of civil society actors, to ensure that reconstruction projects meet the needs of the affected populations. Such consultation requirements are now mainstreamed into projects of the World Bank and many other donors. While the government may object and try to limit contacts and communication between implementing agencies and local residents, donors should insist on the need for broad-based consultation.

- Do not award contracts for reconstruction projects to any Burmese company or individual under international sanctions, or with companies owned or controlled by the Burmese military. Donor states have placed a number of individuals and companies under international sanctions because of their direct role in supporting government repression and human rights abuses. The military junta has already put many of these individuals and companies in charge of major reconstruction projects in the Irrawaddy Delta. The donor community should not support any reconstruction efforts conducted by individuals or companies under international sanctions, and should not engage companies owned or controlled by the Burmese military in reconstruction projects.

- Provide humanitarian and reconstruction aid on the basis of need, and guard against government discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, religion, perceived political affiliation, or other basis. The Burmese government has a long record of discrimination against and marginalization of ethnic and religious minorities, independent religious authorities, and independent civil society groups, and of politicizing humanitarian and development assistance. Consider supporting small-scale, community-based reconstruction efforts in health, education, water and sanitation, agriculture, and other essential sectors that directly benefit the poorest and most affected, and not just “prestige” infrastructure projects that may not bring the same benefits to those most in need. Donors should ensure that the humanitarian and reconstruction needs of all affected communities are met on a nondiscriminatory basis.

- Before committing to reconstruction projects, require that the Burmese government, which has an estimated US$3.5 billion in foreign reserves and receives an estimated US$150 million in monthly gas exports revenues, formally commit to making a significant contribution to reconstruction efforts. While much of the Burmese population lives in dire poverty with meager access to education and health care, the country’s leadership has accumulated huge wealth through government economic enterprises. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) calculates that one-third of the population lives below the poverty line, with much higher rates of absolute poverty in regional areas. And while the government is demanding huge reconstruction sums from foreign donors, its own accumulated wealth is given little consideration. The government’s foreign reserves and gas revenues are not allocated to address the basic needs of the population, causing Burma to be ranked 132 out of 177 in the latest UNDP Human Development Index. The government spends a paltry 1.1 percent of Gross Domestic Product on health and education, and Burma’s health care system is the second worst in the world after Sierra Leone. An estimated 75 percent of hospitals and clinics in cyclone affected areas were destroyed or damaged and urgently need to be replaced. At the same time, the SPDC spends enormous sums on an oversized military and wasteful projects, such as the construction of the new capital in Naypyidaw. Were the donor community to fully fund the reconstruction effort without addressing the government’s horrendous misallocation of resources, it risks being complicit in the government’s continuing disregard for the health, education, and other basic needs of the population.

- Use reconstruction projects to promote respect for human rights in Burma. Some donors have been reluctant to discuss human rights abuses or the lack of progress in political negotiations while meeting Burmese government officials or in donor coordination meetings, fearing that this would complicate discussions on relief and reconstruction. While this may have been sensible in the immediate aftermath of the cyclone, it is now critical to address the connection between the government’s dismal human rights record and its disregard for the Burmese people’s welfare following the cyclone. Cyclone Nargis was a natural disaster that became a man-made disaster. While donors rightly are focusing on a massive humanitarian and reconstruction effort in Burma, they must simultaneously engage with the Burmese government on its atrocious human rights record. These two aims not only are not mutually exclusive, but can and should be pursued in tandem if the aid effort is to reach its intended targets and goals.

Establish an Independent Monitoring Body

Finally, because of the complex and exceptional challenges faced by the donor community in funding, implementing, and monitoring humanitarian and reconstruction projects in Burma, donors should establish an “Independent Monitoring Body.” This body should be co-managed by the donor community and the United Nations to ensure the integrity of the reconstruction and humanitarian effort, and to provide transparency and accountability in the effort. Such a body would be tasked with implementing the basic principles of assistance set out above.

While the above list of basic principles is long, it reflects the enormous challenges to providing effective assistance in a country ruled for decades by a highly repressive and corrupt regime. In addressing the enormous humanitarian and reconstruction needs of the people affected by Cyclone Nargis, it is essential that the donor community ensure that international efforts contribute to greater respect for basic human rights and do not have the unintended consequence of contributing to the further consolidation of illegitimate military rule at the expense of the Burmese people.

We look forward to discussing these matters further at your convenience. Thank you for your consideration.

Yours sincerely,

Brad Adams
Executive Director
Asia division

UN mediator's Myanmar trip must yield progress: global group

UNITED NATIONS (ST)- A GROUP of countries trying to foster democratic rule in Myanmar said on Wednesday that UN mediator Ibrahim Gambari's upcoming visit to the military-ruled country must yield 'tangible progress,' the world body said.

UN chief Mr Ban Ki Moon convened the meeting of the so-called Group of Friends of the Secretary General on Myanmar to discuss Gambari's upcoming trip, according to a UN statement.

'The Group noted their expectations that Mr Gambari's next visit would need to yield tangible progress on the issues of concern to the international community,' it added.

The group specifically said progress was expected 'with regard to the resumption of dialogue between (detained opposition leader) Aung San Suu Kyi and the government, the credibility of the electoral process, and the regularization of engagement with the good offices of the Secretary General.'

The meeting of the group, which was set up last December, brought together Australia, Britain, China, France, India, Indonesia, Japan, Norway, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, the United States, Vietnam, the European Community and the European Union.

Mr Gambari is planning a return visit to Myanmar in mid-August at the invitation of the military regime.

He previously traveled to Myanmar in March to mediate reconciliation talks between the military regime rulers and Ms Aung San Suu Kyi. -- AFP

US Lawmakers Vote to Extend Sanctions Against Burma

By Dan Robinson

Robinson report - Download (MP3)
Robinson report - Listen (MP3)

(VOA)- U.S. lawmakers have been commenting on the situation in Burma as the U.S. Congress advanced legislation to strengthen and renew unilateral U.S. economic sanctions against the Burmese military government. More from VOA's Dan Robinson on Capitol Hill.

The House of Representatives voted to extend U.S. trade sanctions against Burma's military government for one year, as companion legislation moved ahead in a Senate committee.

Sanctions prohibiting U.S. imports from Burma were first put into place in 2003, as a U.S. response to the refusal of Burma's military go restore democracy and improve human rights conditions.

In Wednesday's floor debate, Democrats and Republicans rose to support the extension, citing the Burmese military's use of force against democracy demonstrators last year, and its initial blocking of international relief aid for cyclone victims.

"While there can be concerns about the universal effectiveness of unilateral sanctions, Burma clearly presents a unique situation. There is overwhelming evidence that Burma continues to blatantly disregard HR (human rights) and suppress democracy and it is therefore important to continue the important ban for another yearm" said Sander Levin, a Michigan Democrat.

Republican Wally Herger describes himself as a skeptic where sanctions are concerned, suggesting that the U.S. import ban does not appear to have pushed Burma's military toward democracy and greater respect for human rights.

Despite this, he says U.S. sanctions must continue because the situation has been getting worse rather than better. "That said, in light of the events of the past year I believe we have no choice but to continue these sanctions, not only to remind Burma's leaders that their actions are inexcusable but also to communicate to the impoverished Burmese people that we have not abandoned their cause," he said.

In addition to moving toward renewal of the U.S. import ban, Congress has acted on the Burmese JADE Act, which closes a gap relating to gem stones reaching the U.S from Burma through third countries.

Approved by the Senate Tuesday after earlier House passage, that measure also makes members of Burma's ruling military government along with other military officials and family members ineligible for U.S. visas.

At the same time, lawmakers stopped short of including a stronger provision that would have required the U.S. Chevron company to give up its share of the Yadana natural gas project in Burmese waters.

Instead, the JADE Act contains only non-binding language urging Chevron to consider divestment from the project if the military government does not move toward democratic and other reforms.

Burma also came up in a separate House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing focusing on China and the 2008 Olympics.

There, Republican Dana Rohrabacher criticized Beijing for its support of Burma's military and its involvement in such places as Sudan. "Let's note, why is the dictatorship in Burma in place? Because of the dictatorship in Beijing. Burma is a vassal state of the Chinese Communist party," he said.

The primary House sponsor of U.S. import ban legislation, Democrat Joseph Crowley, called Wednesday for the Association of Southeast Asian nations (ASEAN) and the European Union to do more to step up financial and other pressure on Burma's military.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice told ASEAN leaders meeting in Singapore that it is in the organization's interest to press Burmese military rulers to begin a dialogue with democracy leaders.

A plea for forgiveness

Bangkok Post

The mother was holding her baby tightly under an umbrella, trying her best to guard him from the pouring rain.

I could not see her face in the picture. But as a mother, I could feel her shaking fear, not for herself, but for her baby's safety, as a group of soldiers forced her and other Karen refugees to board a boat back to the war zone in Burma.

As a Buddhist, I know I should not feel enraged. Yet I was doubly enraged at the forced repatriation in Mae Hong Son last week.

It is bad enough to know that Thai troops have no heart for the innocent people who are war victims. But to force them back to face possible violence and death on the holy day of Asarnha Bucha? How could they possibly do this?

The cruelty is eye-opening. When such an important holy day has no power to arouse even a pinch of morality among those who declare themselves as the protectors of Buddhism, and when society at large feels nothing against such inhumanity, we are in a very deep, dark pitch.

But condemnation, however legitimate, only deepens our negativity. To have any hope at all of cleansing our souls and our sins, we must probe the roots of such cruelty.

It helps to go back to the gist of the Buddha's First Sermon on Asarnha Bucha Day. In case we have forgotten, here it is:

Our suffering stems from our likes and dislikes rooted in the false sense of self.

To end this cycle, we need to see that we are mere temporary composites of mind and matter under the natural laws of impermanence and conditionality. To realise this truth, the Buddha advises we follow the Eight-fold Path to see for ourselves the natural laws or dharma, to maintain ethical conduct, and to foster spiritual development.

The path helps us to avoid hurting or exploiting others. When the cessation of anger, greed and delusion can be many lifetimes away, constant contemplation on impermanence can miraculously fill our hearts with calm and loving kindness.

The realities of our daily struggles and politics have made it difficult to follow the path. That is why we celebrate Asarnha Bucha, so we can stop and review ourselves.

Buddhism is an optimistic system. People are not originally bad. Our behaviour is conditioned. We can change when the conditioning changes.

So we must ask why the military and the public believe that forced repatriation is not sinful? Also, why do we believe we are good Buddhists when we treat ethnic peoples like dirt?

Is it because fear has made us heartless? Is it because our traditional concept of sin has become too narrow for the modern age? Or is it because we are the faithful followers of a religion much more powerful than Buddhism - that of racist nationalism?

Is it all of the above?

The forced repatriation in Mae Hong Son last week was not the first, and it won't be the last, which failed to shake our hearts.

The public felt undisturbed when a group of youngsters from the Hmong refugee camp in Phetchabun was repatriated to Laos without their parents. Their camp was burned down after a petition against power and sexual abuse. And when they tried to make their voices heard in Bangkok, they were immediately deported to risk their lives from persecution in Laos.

Similarly, we feel nothing in using immigrant workers as slave labour, or when their families are shattered by separate deportations.

Meanwhile, the deep South has become a war zone because we insist on seeing the ethnic Muslim Malays as outsiders.

If this is not racist nationalism, what is?

As the country is fired up by the Preah Vihear nationalistic frenzy, I wonder how the Karen mothers and their children are doing back in the war zone.

It is still raining hard. Can they find shelter and food? Can they stay safe? Can they forgive us our sins?

Sanitsuda Ekachai is Assistant Editor (Outlook), Bangkok Post.


HRW Urges Donors to Ensure Burma's Rulers Do Not Divert Cyclone Aid

By VOA News
23 July 2008

Human Rights Watch is urging international donors to ensure that Burma's military rulers do not divert humanitarian aid intended for victims of Cyclone Nargis.

The U.S.-based rights group said Wednesday that aid efforts in Burma should be monitored by an independent body co-managed by donors and the United Nations. It says such a body would boost the transparency and accountability of the aid process.

The group says that since the cyclone struck in May, Burmese leaders have restricted travel by foreign aid workers and arrested some locals involved in relief efforts.

Human Rights Watch says international donors should pressure Burma to adhere to basic principles on the provision of aid.

World Health Organization official, Richard Garfield, who recently visited Burma has said that Burma's government is providing more help to cyclone victims than he previously thought.

Cyclone Nargis left almost 140,000 people dead or missing when it tore through Burma's Irrawaddy Delta region on May 3.

The United Nations and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations said Monday that Burma needs more than $1 billion in aid over the next three years to recover.

ASEAN risks being sidelined

By Ruth Youngblood

(Kuwait Times) Praise heaped on the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) for persuading Myanmar's reluctant junta to open its doors to foreign aid have not halted nagging questions about the organization's future. While the group's credibility received a boost for brokering the arrangement enabling access for foreign aid and rescue workers following the devastating cyclone that hit Myanmar in May, analysts said the 41-year-old organization was in danger of being marginalized in Asia. As relations between major
powers improve, alternative platforms for regional interactions are emerging.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting Monday that only 30 per cent of the group's agreements and commitments have been honoured and implemented, describing the record as "somewhat patchy." ASEAN needs to implement many of the agreements it has adopted, said Mely Caballero-Anthony, associate professor at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. "By walking the talk, ASEAN builds up its credibility as a serious player in regional affairs, which in turn
enhances its standing in the wider international community," she said.

Progress on ASEAN's charter was essential, as it called for greater institutional capacity and accountability, she added. Ratification by all members is expected in December. The charter, signed by the 10 ASEAN leaders in November, seeks to commit the disparate nations to promote human rights and democratic ideals. Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines still need to ratify. ASEAN started working on a dispute settlement mechanism and a human rights body. The human rights body is to have no power to impose
sanctions and would rely on peer pressure, an official said. A database on human rights violations was to be created and periodic explanations sought, he said.

Critics have long branded ASEAN as ineffective, with non-interference in each other's affairs being its basic tenet. The charter's toothless enforcement mechanism was more of the same, they said. Myanmar only met its ASEAN counterparts nearly three weeks after the cyclone Nargis, the region's worst natural disaster since the tsunami of 2004, its critics pointed out.

As long as ASEAN stayed cohesive and effective, it should keep its place on the top of the regional arrangements, said Ong Keng Yong, director of the Institute of Policy Studies and former ASEAN secretary-general. ASEAN's ability to bring countries together was an asset, analysts said. The 27-member ASEAN Regional Forum, the region's premier security platform, meets today. Top diplomats from North Korea, the United States, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia are also set to gather on the sidelines for an
informal session. - dpa