By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 17, 2008
Southeast Asian countries are scrambling to demonstrate that they can lead the international effort to assist cyclone victims in neighboring Burma, with a meeting planned for Monday at which foreign ministers will confront their Burmese counterpart over the government's response to the crisis.
Burma this week finally allowed a disaster assessment team from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to travel to the Irrawaddy Delta region, where more than 100,000 people are dead or missing and more than 2 million lost their homes. The team will make recommendations to the foreign ministers when they gather in Singapore on Monday.
"I think it is a defining moment for ASEAN," said Surin Pitsuwan, ASEAN secretary general, in an interview yesterday in Washington. "We have to demonstrate that we are relevant, that we can help each other, that we can solve the problems that occurred in our landscape."
Surin said he was concerned that, if action is not taken soon, disease and illness will spread from Burma to its neighbors, making the cyclone tragedy a regional problem. The World Health Organization warned this week that a plague epidemic could easily break out among the people displaced by the cyclone.
ASEAN, which is made up of Burma and nine of its neighbors, including Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia, has struggled to achieve prominence as a regional body. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has snubbed it, skipping two of the past three annual meetings.
The group, which also includes countries with less-than-stellar human rights records -- such as Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos -- has been reluctant to criticize member states, though last fall it broke precedent and issued a statement noting its "revulsion" over Burma's crackdown on monks.
"We are hoping the ASEAN foreign ministers will deliver a very firm message to the Burmese representatives that they need to let the world save Burmese lives," said a senior State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity so that he could speak more frankly. "They need to push the Burmese to be more open."
After the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, ASEAN members agreed to work together in future humanitarian disasters. Surin said he is drawing on the pledges and resources committed under that plan to create a "coalition of mercy." But he acknowledged that the junta that runs Burma has been reluctant to accept assistance, making it necessary to tread carefully.
"We have a problem, and that is why we have to go through all this effort and exercise," Surin said. "The point is how to get what we want without affecting or destroying the cooperation and support you need. It is cumbersome."
Surin said that calls for direct intervention that bypasses the government reflect the "very, very, very high-level frustration" with the Burmese government.
Diplomats said that ASEAN and U.N. officials are discussing a combined effort, which they hope will make assistance more acceptable to the government than would a broader international rescue mission that included the United States.
Still, U.S. officials reported yesterday that two of four shipments delivered Friday by American C-130 aircraft were handed over directly to nongovernmental organizations -- the first time the government has not demanded it first receive the goods and supplies.