ASEAN makes fragile Myanmar progress Ten Nations, One Problem Child ! ASEAN makes fragile Myanmar progress By Christina Hadju Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations' (ASEAN's) biggest achievement in Myanmar occurred largely under the radar. With this past weekend's 14th summit meeting decision to establish an ASEAN human-rights body by the end of the year, many now hope for a stronger ASEAN stance on Myanmar's abysmal human-rights record. But the focus on ASEAN's human-rights mechanism has overshadowed the inroads the organization has already made through humanitarian assistance to Myanmar. Less than a year ago, the Myanmar military regime initially refused to accept outside assistance for communities severely affected by C 房屋仲介網yclone Nargis. When the cyclone struck in May 2008, it left 140,000 Myanmar citizens dead or missing and 2.4 million severely affected, according to United Nations statistics. The regime eventually flip-flopped and agreed to join hands with ASEAN and the United Nations through the Tripartite Core Group, tasked with coordinating the distribution of international assistance to storm victims. Largely overlooked by the media was the decision this past weekend to extend the ASEAN humanitarian taskforce and the Tripartite Core Group in Myanmar until July 2010. For the first time, ASEAN set up an operational arm with an office in Yangon. Since the establishment of the coordination effort, Myanmar has issued close to 3,000 visas to international humanitarian workers and allowed them, for the most part, unimpeded access to the Irrawaddy Del 租房子ta region, the area worst hit by the cyclone. This unprecedented international humanitarian presence in usually reclusive Myanmar has the potential to bring about indirect improvements in the human-rights conditions of local communities. There is no question that ASEAN's tradition of non-interference has hampered the organization's efforts to take a strong stand on human rights and democracy. And any human-rights body set up by ASEAN could still be scuttled by strict adherence to principles on non-interference included in the grouping's new charter. On several fronts, ASEAN's position on Myanmar has disappointed. The weekend summit made no mention of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been in detention since 2003. Equally disheartening was ASEAN's weak position on the question of ethnic Rohingya migrants, relegating th 售屋網eir plight as one part of the broader issue of migration in the Indian Ocean that would be best addressed by other international fora. Human-rights activists were similarly furious that summit organizers conceded to Myanmar and Cambodian government protests and barred the selected civil society representatives from those countries from attending a rare face-to-face meeting with ASEAN leaders. On the other hand, humanitarian assistance is an area where ASEAN has made inroads. One week after the cyclone, ASEAN sent in an Emergency Rapid Assessment Team and with ASEAN secretary general Surin Pitsuwan's diplomacy got Myanmar to agree to a humanitarian taskforce to coordinate the international effort. Its success was that it at least partially alleviated the Myanmar regime's suspicion of assistance from the West. For a government that by most assessments expends o 港式飲茶nly 5% of its efforts on the functions of government, with the rest focused on suppressing internal opposition, the establishment of a three-year community reconstruction plan was a positive step. Some contend the periodic assessments and reviews of the aid effort signal progress in official transparency, far from the norm under the junta's impenetrable and isolationist political style. The ASEAN and international presence is not only of humanitarian value for the communities devastated by the natural disaster. It also has the potential for small steps forward on improving human-rights standards in the country. The idea is that the humanitarian efforts have not aimed at investigating, reporting or prosecuting human-rights abuses. Rather, the mere presence of international organizations and non-governmental organizations has allowed the international community to get on-the-ground in 台北港式飲茶formation about the true plight of the people of Myanmar. Accurate information about conditions in Myanmar, particularly outside the major city centers, is difficult to come by. Foreign diplomats and international officials based in the old capital, Yangon, must usually apply for permission from the government if they are to travel anywhere outside the city - and permission is not always granted. Even the Asian Development Bank finds it difficult to source accurate statistics on Myanmar, stating vaguely that actual gross domestic product growth (GDP) in Myanmar is below potential and significantly less than official figures indicate. According to most assessments, Myanmar is not doing well. It remains one of the world's poorest countries, particularly in comparison to its more developed ASEAN neighbors. The United Nations Development Program's recent human development report cites Myanmar' 商務中心s GDP per capita as the lowest in ASEAN. The high level of corruption also ensures that GDP growth, which draws largely on its expanding natural gas sector, does not improve the lives of the vast majority of the population. The exploitation of Myanmar's lucrative energy reserves should have raised the natural standards of living; instead fuel prices were hiked to disastrous affect in 2007 and rural poverty is on the increase, with 70% of the country's workforce employed in agriculture. Corruption watchdog Transparency International lists Myanmar as the world's second-most corrupt country, trailing only Somalia. Further deterioration in living standards in Myanmar can be expected. The US-based research organization Fund for Peace places Myanmar in the highest category of vulnerability to internal conflict and social deterioration - the same category as war-torn countries like Somalia and Sudan. It cites Mya 宜蘭民宿nmar's tuberculosis rate as one of the highest in the world. An estimated 50% of Asia's malaria deaths also occur in Myanmar. It is not to say that neglect and human-rights violations will necessarily drop with the in-country presence of international humanitarian agencies. But ASEAN's work is a step toward achieving longer term, on-the-ground international scrutiny that could eventually serve as a deterrent to human-rights abuses and go towards alleviating some of Myanmar's many humanitarian needs. Currently, the international presence is confined largely to the delta region. Rights advocacy group Human Rights Watch reports that travel restrictions are still imposed on humanitarian officials. And to date Myanmar has resisted efforts to expand the geographic reach of aid organizations to other areas with extreme humanitarian need. For instance, there is insufficient information about the plight of the estimated 50 墾丁民宿0,000 internally displaced persons by fighting between government forces and insurgency groups in Myanmar's eastern region. There are also reports of severe food shortages in isolated parts of western Myanmar's Chin state. The question now is how far will ASEAN's intervention go, given the grouping's default penchant for non-intervention. The current chair of ASEAN, Thailand, has incentives to push the initiative forward. Thailand has long grappled with the complexities of sharing a porous border with Myanmar. Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva it seems would be keen to distinguish his government's Myanmar policy from those of the former Thaksin Shinawatra government, where business opportunities were largely the driver of bilateral relations. Abhisit's fellow Thai Democrat party politician, former Thai foreign minister, and now ASEAN secretary general Surin, is known to hold principled views on Myanmar. Many believe he c 日月潭民宿arries the personal charisma to mediate between the generals and the international community. But time is of the essence. After 2009, though, the outlook for ASEAN’s engagement in Myanmar will be more uncertain. The next chair of ASEAN, Vietnam, will not carry the same incentives to forge humanitarian ties and respect for rights progress in Myanmar. Still, ASEAN's emergency disaster management response program represented a substantial step forward for the organization, and a new form of international intervention in Myanmar. By all means possible, ASEAN should protect and expand on this fragile achievement. Christina Hajdu worked for five years in the Australian Foreign Service in Southeast Asia. She is currently serving as a political analyst for the Commonwealth Secretariat in London and has also worked for the United Nations and the International Criminal Court. The views expressed here are her own. http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Southeast_Asia/KC05Ae01.ht 麻辣鍋ml .