Mishandling of cyclone foreign aid deals latest blow to ASEAN

By Jim Gomez, AP

MANILA, Philippines — Myanmar, long a thorn in the side of its Southeast Asian allies, has again made them a target of criticism after its ruling junta shocked the world by blocking most foreign aid for desperate cyclone survivors.

Critics have accused the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a 10-country bloc that includes Myanmar, of doing little to persuade the reclusive country’s military-led government to rapidly let in outside help — particularly disaster experts.

European Union nations have warned that the junta could be committing a crime against humanity by blocking aid intended for up to 2.5 million survivors grappling with hunger, loss of their homes and potential outbreaks of deadly diseases.

“More than any international organization, it’s ASEAN which can do something, but it has shown no teeth,” said Loretta Ann Rosales, a former Filipino legislator who is an adviser to a Southeast Asian lawmakers’ group advocating democracy in Myanmar.

“If they cannot take a strong position in this emergency, they can dissolve themselves into irrelevance.”

ASEAN did manage to schedule an emergency meeting of its foreign ministers Monday in Singapore, the bloc’s current chairman country, to discuss the disaster — but only after getting the junta’s nod, a Southeast Asian diplomat in Manila told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the issue.

ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan will give a rundown of the group’s efforts to help in the cyclone’s aftermath. Myanmar’s top diplomat, Nyan Win, will present a “needs assessment” to fellow ministers, said Philippine Assistant Foreign Secretary Marilyn Alarilla.

A proposal for ASEAN to play a role in arranging the entry of aid for Myanmar may be considered, she said, while suggestions that aid be taken in by force were unlikely to gain support.

“ASEAN moves gradually and by consensus,” she said. “If Myanmar takes a hard-line position, we won’t be effective.”

It is the latest storm blamed on Myanmar to batter ASEAN, a Cold War-era bloc of fledgling democracies, authoritarian states, a military dictatorship and a monarchy. It has long been hamstrung by that diversity, along with a bedrock rule of noninterference in each other’s affairs and a policy of making decision by consensus.