Wednesday 13 Oct 2021 | 21:16 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 13 Oct 2021 | 21:16 | SYDNEY

Burma: Regional multilateralism fails again


Rory Medcalf


13 May 2008 15:05

The ineffectual regional response to Burma’s humanitarian disaster confirms the continuing hollowness of Asia’s multilateral institutions.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN); the ASEAN-3 arrangement including China, Japan, and South Korea; the various ASEAN-1 arrangements with those three powers and with India; the ASEAN Regional Forum, bringing in the US, Russia, Australia and others; the East Asia Summit: Burma is a member of all of these bodies mandated to improve regional co-operation and dialogue. Most of them have disaster relief formally on their agendas, and often hold assorted seminars, workshops and junkets to discuss the same. Yet no attempt appears underway to use any of these much-touted regional frameworks to bring serious pressure (such as the threat of Burma’s membership suspension) to bear on Rangoon’s military rulers. 

No doubt in the months and years ahead, there will be polite and half-hearted ‘lessons learned’ conversations in some of these forums about the regional response to the Burma cyclone tragedy. No doubt the advocates of these frameworks will continue to explain that we all have to be patient, that regional institution-building works differently in Asia, and that we have to build trust and comfort levels so that one day the regional diplomatic machinery really will be able to swing into action to deal with a real live crisis. Only, that day never seems to get any closer. With every disaster that strikes, the defenders of the ASEAN way keep saying ‘not yet’.

In the absence of a decent regional (or global) multilateral response, the onus falls back upon instances of leadership by powerful states, and when it comes to influencing Burma towards opening its doors properly to aid, the key players are China, India and Japan. None has covered itself in glory here. And while China had a window of opportunity to show itself a responsible stakeholder in the wellbeing of the people of Burma, and to demonstrate that the People’s Liberation Army has a legitimate and potentially effective role in providing disaster relief to friends in need, Beijing will now be understandably preoccupied by another natural disaster closer to home – the 12 May earthquake.

As well as a massive human tragedy, Cyclone Nargis is a reminder that the rhetoric of pan-Asian co-operation and rising Asian soft power remains far ahead of the reality.