Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar posed crucial test for Asean

June 18th, 2008 - 2:53 pm ICT by IANS  

Singapore, June 18 (DPA) A new Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) has emerged from its achievements in cyclone-swept Myanmar, showing the world that the regional body is able to “rise to the occasion”, Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said Wednesay. “We are being baptized by Cyclone Nargis,” he told the 5th Asean Leadership Forum in Singapore.

It has been more than six weeks since the cyclone hit Myanmar leaving a trail of devastation followed by three weeks of international outrage as the military junta obstructed foreign aid and volunteers.

Recalling the frustration and anguish of the World Bank and many Western countries which sent ships and planes packed with relief supplies, Surin said he was repeatedly asked, “Can Asean do something?”

“With 2.4 million people teetering between survival and death,” Asean became the mechanism for getting aid to the worst-hit areas such as the Irrawaddy Delta in the south, helping sort out objections to helicopters and sending in nearly 300,000 volunteers,” Surin told government and business leaders in addition to civil society groups.

“The teams have been given full support and reached the areas where they wanted to go,” Surin said. “That’s a new Asean ready to take on responsibility.”

Aid workers said thousands of survivors of the storm are yet vulnerable to sickness and many are without adequate food and supplies.

A meeting of Asean volunteers will be held July 24 to collect information from their experiences “for the future”, Surin said. “We have achieved a certain degree of competence.”

Amid the concerns of the international community, “we have made progress”, he said.

Asean, which groups Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Brunei, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar, has long been labelled as ineffective by critics.

Surin expressed confidence that the Asean Charter could be approved by all members by the time of the Bangkok summit at the end of the year. Thailand, Myanmar, the Philippines and Indonesia have yet to approve the document designed to unite the countries into an economic bloc, set democracy as a goal and create a human rights body.

Asean “must continue to work as a cohesive body and integrate quickly, so as to provide member countries with the ability to respond to external challenges with greater resilience and unity,” said Lee Yi Shyan, Singapore’s minister of state for trade and industry.

He cited rising oil prices, increased food costs, global warming and worsening pollution as some of the long-term challenges facing the region.

“In addition, we continue to face ongoing security threats in the form of terrorism and pandemic flu,” Lee said. “If we are not prepared, we risk our countries becoming disoriented from the resulting shocks.”

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