ASEAN’s role in the Cyclone Nargis response: implications, lessons and opportunities
by Yves-Kim Creach and Lilianne Fan December 2008

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has in the past been strongly criticised for its position on and relationship with Myanmar, in particular for its policies of ‘non-interference’ and ‘constructive engagement’. In its response to the devastation caused by Cyclone Nargis, ASEAN as an organisation took a bold step by proactively assuming a leadership role, both in convincing the Myanmar government to cooperate with the international community and in managing the response itself. In so doing, it has helped to open up an unprecedented level of humanitarian space. While much work still needs to be done, ASEAN’s approach to the post-Nargis response may well offer a model for other regional organisations. Natural disasters such as Cyclone Nargis are likely to become increasingly frequent, and expertise in responding to and managing them will be needed in the future.

ASEAN’s position on Myanmar

ASEAN was founded on 8 August 1967. Initially comprising five members –Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand – by 1999, with the accession of Cambodia, the organisation encompassed all ten of the region’s states, including Myanmar. The organisation was founded on a set of core principles: non-interference in its members’ affairs, consensus, the non-use of force and non-confrontation. These principles have governed ASEAN’s relationship with Myanmar, and have been the source of the harshest criticism of its stance towards the regime there, not only from Western governments but also increasingly from pro-democracy forces within its own member countries.

Throughout most of the 1990s, ASEAN’s engagement with Myanmar consisted of quiet diplomacy and confidence-building measures. Following the country’s accession, however, members increasingly presented their position as a realist response in light of the country’s isolation and xenophobia, rather than as tacit consent with the policies and practices of the regime. ASEAN’s strongest and most united criticism of the junta came in the wake of its brutal crackdown on civilian protesters in September 2007. Following the crackdown, ASEAN members were divided over the degree to which they should uphold the principle of non-interference in relation to Myanmar. The decision to play a major role in the Cyclone Nargis response gave ASEAN an opportunity to forge a common position.

Just after the cyclone struck, on 5 May, ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan called on all member states to provide urgent relief assistance through the framework of the ASEAN Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response (AADMER). Three days later, on 8 May, the Myanmar government agreed to work in coordination with the ASEAN Secretariat to assemble and deploy an ASEAN Emergency Rapid Assessment Team (ERAT), made up of government officials, disaster management experts and NGOs from member countries. In the first-ever such mission for ASEAN, ERAT was deployed to Myanmar from 9–18 May. Its report was submitted to a Special ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on 19 May. At the meeting, ministers agreed to establish an ASEAN-led coordinating mechanism to ‘facilitate the effective distribution and utilization of assistance from the international community, including the expeditious and effective deployment of relief workers, especially health and medical personnel’. Over the next week, the ASEAN Secretariat, in consultation with experts from member states, worked on designing an appropriate mechanism. The result was a two-tiered structure, consisting of a diplomatic body, the ASEAN Humanitarian Task Force (AHTF), and a Yangon-based Tripartite Core Group (TCG), consisting of ASEAN, the Myanmar government and the United Nations, to facilitate day-to-day operations. The first concept paper for the mechanism was circulated at the 25 May Pledging Conference in Yangon. A detailed terms of reference for the TCG followed soon afterwards.

The ASEAN Humanitarian Task Force (AHTF)

The AHTF has 22 members, two from the ASEAN Secretariat, including the ASEAN Secretary-General as chair, and two officials (one senior diplomat and one technical expert) from each of the ten ASEAN countries. The main function of the Task Force is to supervise and advise the TCG, including on broad strategic planning, priorities and targets. The AHTF agreed to meet at least once a month for the first three months and more regularly if necessary.

The Tripartite Core Group (TCG)

The Yangon-based TCG was set up to oversee the coordination of resources, operations, monitoring and reporting. The ASEAN component of the TCG comprises a senior ASEAN member (i.e. an ambassador from an ASEAN country based in Yangon), an official from the ASEAN Secretariat and an expert on disaster management. The Myanmar component of the TCG is represented by a senior member from the government, appointed by the Central Coordinating Board, and two others. The United Nations component comprises the UN Humanitarian Coordinator, the Resident Coordinator and the head of one of the UN operational agencies, on a rotating basis. Additional technical experts can be invited to provide technical support as required. The TCG meets once or twice a week, and is perceived by aid agencies working in Myanmar to be generally effective in overseeing and facilitating the cyclone response.

The PONJA

At the International Pledging Conference, donors made two major demands: the provision of full and unfettered access for relief workers, and the preparation of an objective and credible needs assessment. This became the responsibility of the TCG, which responded by commissioning the Post-Nargis Joint Assessment (PONJA).

The PONJA was launched in Yangon on 8 June. It was a massive multi-stakeholder joint assessment effort involving the Myanmar government, ASEAN, the UN, international financial institutions and INGOs. Using a spatially-clustered methodology, the relief and recovery component of the PONJA was analysed through the Village Tract Assessment (VTA), while the macro and long-term recovery component was reviewed through a Damage and Loss Assessment (DALA). Over 300 people, divided into 32 teams, spent ten days touring the cyclone-affected area. The World Bank seconded some 20 experts to ASEAN, and technical experts were also brought in from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP). Operational UN agencies and INGOs contributed significantly to the PONJA, both through the assessment teams (the VTA teams were coordinated by Merlin – see the following article, which discusses the VTA process in more detail) and through the analysis and writing of various components of the report (Oxfam lent two technical coordinators to the PONJA writing teams for the water and sanitation and early recovery sections).

The preliminary findings of the PONJA were presented at an ASEAN Roundtable in Yangon on 24 June, and fed into a revised Flash Appeal, launched in New York on 10 July, which requested $303.6 million. On 21 July, on the occasion of the 41st ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in Singapore, ASEAN and the UN jointly launched the final PONJA report. Following the launch, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes paid a three-day visit to Myanmar. ‘In May,’ he said, ‘donors requested access for international relief workers and a credible, objective assessment: these are both now in place.’

Key findings of the PONJA report included:

  • A total of $1 billion was needed for recovery over the following three years. Damage from the cyclone was estimated at $4bn.
  • Total economic losses amounted to about 2.7% of Myanmar’s projected GDP in 2008.
  • Affected households were extremely vulnerable – 55% reported having only one day of food stocks or less, and were reliant on the steady flow of relief supplies.
  • The scale of the impact was similar to that inflicted on Indonesia following the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004.
  • Over 90% of needs were at the community level and could be addressed through community-based approaches.

Monitoring and review

Following the PONJA, ASEAN created a monitoring unit to measure the progress of the humanitarian response, dispatched ASEAN personnel to pre-established UN hubs in the field and commenced joint planning for the early recovery period. Regular ‘Periodic Reviews’ (three are planned) are designed to evaluate the progress of the recovery effort. To develop the detailed methodology for the review, technical consultations are being conducted with aid agencies, the Myanmar government and local NGOs. One of the key advantages of the review process is that, like the PONJA, it should capture the efforts of every stakeholder, from government programmes to private sector initiatives and local spontaneous action, as a complement to the cluster monitoring systems. It will also provide independent and objective information to identify, verify and address gaps in the recovery effort.

Implications, lessons and opportunities

ASEAN’s role in the Cyclone Nargis response holds important implications, lessons and opportunities for the international humanitarian community. According Holmes, following a visit to cyclone-affected areas in late July: ‘Nargis showed us a new model of humanitarian partnership, adding the special position and capabilities of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to those of the United Nations in working effectively with the government’. ASEAN leadership, Holmes went on, was ‘vital in building trust with the government and saving lives’.

While ASEAN’s actions have been acknowledged as key in providing leadership, structure and legitimacy to the Nargis response, it took some time for ASEAN and the Myanmar government to recognise the role of NGOs, and the TCG does not include any NGO representatives. The organisation has also faced criticism that the Periodic Review simply duplicates the cluster approach and is redundant. This overlooks the fact that access to the Delta was granted through the PONJA, and was the result of intervention by ASEAN. While OCHA might have been a more natural home for such a review process, it was not operational in Myanmar prior to the cyclone and has only recently been allowed to establish a presence in the country. ASEAN’s hosting of the review ensures continuity, and the organisation’s mandate means that all stakeholders can engage in the review process with commitment and accountability.

With the intensification of climate change, cyclones, earthquakes and other natural calamities will become increasingly common. In this new global context, there is an urgent need for effective regional mechanisms to identify priorities in the early stages of an emergency response. Such regional capacity will allow the quick deployment of disaster experts, the establishment of appropriate institutional arrangements and a smooth linking into existing emergency appeal mechanisms, to ensure that the needs of victims are addressed in a timely and adequately manner, and that the transition from relief to recovery is well-supported and effectively managed.

Yves-Kim Creac’h (yveskim.creach@merlin.org.uk) is the head of Merlin’s Emergency Response Team, based in London. He was coordinator of the Village Tract Assessment component of the Post-Nargis Joint Assessment (PONJA). Lilianne Fan (lilianne.fan@gmail.com) is an independent consultant on humanitarian policy, reconstruction and governance, based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Previously, she was Oxfam’s Senior Policy Coordinator for Aceh, and Humanitarian Policy Coordinator for Myanmar.

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