[OPINION] The ASEAN and the coronavirus

[OPINION] The ASEAN and the coronavirus
'States must ensure that human security and social justice are at the heart of their response, and that emergency powers are not abused for narrow political gains'

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has been excruciatingly sluggish in responding to the COVID-19 crisis.  

Touting to lead and represent a population of almost 700 million people, this regional intergovernmental group seems to be paralyzed anew or showing sheer inutility in addressing the needs of its peoples in the face of the pandemic. (READ: WHO says ‘aggressive’ action needed in Southeast Asia to stop virus)

ASEAN has always been quick to convene more than a thousand meetings annually to discuss and cooperate on economic integration, trade, tariff controls and exemptions, joint border patrols or cultural exhibits, countless ministerial gatherings, and summits. 

That is so far what it has again been doing amid this crisis. For the past weeks, ASEAN has issued some declarations and statements, convened online meetings, and come up with some plans.  

Indeed, intra-ASEAN consultations have stepped up in the past two weeks with Vietnam as ASEAN Chair taking the lead. 

Vietnam has proposed to set up regional medical and essential goods reserves in case of an emergency, building a common health response based on guidance from the World Health Organization and organizing online drills at the ASEAN Center of Military Medicine on responding to epidemics.

ASEAN and China medical experts have tackled COVID-19 in a video conference; ASEAN and the US have vowed to keep working together to counter COVID-19 with the ASEAN Coordinating Council (ACC) tasked with monitoring the collective response, presenting subsequent recommendations and reporting to the 36th ASEAN Summit originally scheduled on 8-9 April but rescheduled to June. 

Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said that ASEAN “must prioritize the COVID-19 ASEAN Response Fund to expand the scale of existing emergency stockpiles for pandemic responses with items such as face masks, test kits, and protective equipment.”

Early this week, ASEAN issued a declaration during a special online summit on COVID-19.

Yet, for this emergency, it has still been an “each to its own” mentality, with every country virtually shutting down its borders. While this may be a natural knee-jerk reaction, it has been almost 3 months since the outbreak, and there has yet to be a concrete collective response on the ground from the group.  

Member countries have been reacting to the virus in varying ways. A few have managed to contain the contagion with proactive approaches relying primarily on health experts and calm and astute civilian leaders such as those in Singapore and Vietnam. 

Others have resorted to almost draconian measures with either politicians or former generals leading the calamity response such as in the Philippines and Cambodia. Unsurprisingly, however, ASEAN’s response to the crisis as a regional community has yet to be felt. Many countries beyond the region have also taken a “me-first” strategy, as the UN itself struggles to rally a decisive, coordinated global response. (READ: PH pushes for stronger cooperation in ASEAN amid coronavirus pandemic)

Senior fellow Randy Nandyatama at Gadjah Mada University’s ASEAN Studies Center pointed out that ASEAN had never responded collectively to any regional crises as they were occurring, but rather created a new mechanism once the crisis had passed. For example, the Chiang Mai Initiative, the bloc’s legacy from the 1997 Asian financial crisis, was only formed after 2000. ASEAN states also tended to use a security paradigm when facing regional challenges, which generally resulted in a zero-sum mentality.

It is thus troubling that COVID-19 will aggravate the woes of the peoples of ASEAN as this will undeniably test the capacity for crisis mitigation and response of the region’s governments, as the virus will potentially ravage each and every nation. It is more worrying in countries and communities where overt violence and political instability are present and where economic capacities and social capital are fragile, making them more vulnerable to the impact of the outbreak, and possibly exacerbating existing conflicts or giving rise to new ones. 

Even before the virus swept the 10 countries comprising ASEAN, the region has been reeling from numerous armed conflicts that have resulted in the deaths of more than 30,000 since 1989, displacement of more than 300,000 internally displaced peoples, and a refugee population of more than 1.5 million.  More than half of those killed were from Burma/Myanmar.

In a recent joint statement by the Initiatives for International Dialogue (IID) and the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict-Southeast Asia (GPPAC-SEA) and signed by Nobel Laureate and former Timor Leste President and Prime Minister Jose Ramos Horta and 2013 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee Seng Raw Laphai, together with more than 500 civil society organizations in the region – mostly coming from Burma/Myanmar, and around the world, ASEAN was urged to “place human security and conflict sensitivity as core principles in their emergency responses, ensuring that measures are proportionate, necessary, and non-discriminatory, aligned with international human rights law and standards, and are sensitive to the disproportionate vulnerability to pandemics of conflict-affected communities, refugees, asylum-seekers, stateless, internally-displaced persons (IDPs), people with disabilities, women, children and elderly”. 

The statement was in response to the call of the United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres for a global ceasefire. 

The call for a global ceasefire is not only a prudent step, but also a moral imperative. 

This time is thus a test of ASEAN leadership in the region, for a model of ASEAN integration to bud beyond just economics and trade. States need to recognize that while border lockdowns may temporarily contain the pandemic, without supporting the capacities of more fragile countries and without coordinated action, we will not be able to beat the virus. 

ASEAN should convene a space for cooperation and solidarity among ASEAN nations – including Timor Leste – and monitor how to protect those who may have been forgotten by individual states e.g. refugees, stateless, undocumented, asylum seekers, etc. For example, the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) can monitor that state responses are not discriminatory against or do not forget access of refugees, IDPs, and the stateless, and have the public and civil society organizations involved in soliciting support for these communities and in developing a reporting system on their status. AICHR and the ASEAN Commission on Women and Children (ACWC) can set up these bodies, which can act as an oversight entity.

During an online meeting of the ASEAN Coordinating Council (ACC) last 9 April, foreign ministers endorsed the setting up of a COVID-19 ASEAN Response Fund to be drawn in part from the existing ASEAN Development Fund, and the sharing of information and strategies and ways to ease the impact of the global health crisis on people and the economy. They also discussed a planned video summit of their leaders with counterparts from China, Japan, and South Korea (ASEAN + 3).

The Philippines Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr. emphasized the need for continued cooperation among ASEAN states in ensuring food security, particularly a stable rice supply, access to medicines, personal protective equipment, and other essential medical supplies, as well as the importance of “maintaining peace and stability in the region during this crucial time, particularly in the South China Sea,” referring to the recent sinking of a Vietnamese fishing vessel by a Chinese coast guard ship last 2 April.

But beyond these pronouncements and plans, there has yet to be clear action steps towards achieving these agreements. It is time to roll out a collective response.

The virus will not discriminate with regards to religion, race, ethnicity, political ideology, and affiliation. This will hurt us all, but will unevenly hurt the poor, the politically and economically marginalized and the communities that are already devastated by violence – the same people in whose name many of the state security actors and non-state armed groups claim to fight for. 

All efforts must be expedited to contain the pandemic and find durable solutions to this common problem. Ceasefires will allow humanitarian aid to reach the most vulnerable communities, and can open corridors for dialogue and coordination for emergency response, without the risk of being derailed due to any unnecessary armed confrontation. Resources must be directed preventing further damage to those who have already lost so much through armed conflict. 

In line with this aim, States must ensure that human security and social justice are at the heart of their response, and that emergency powers are not abused for narrow political gains, otherwise such will only exacerbate the inequalities, insecurity and distrust that underpin these armed conflicts. 

Beyond its recent special summit declaration, ASEAN can become more relevant if its member states take the following steps without delay:

1) Declare immediate unilateral ceasefires in order to establish humanitarian corridors and delivery of aid, particularly health education and services, to affected communities. This can serve as a starting point to negotiate and forge reciprocal ceasefire agreements and ceasefire monitoring mechanisms with armed groups (READ: [OPINION] Ceasefire in the time of coronavirus); 

2) Allocate adequate resources to ensure non-discrimination, transparency, and respect for human dignity in the delivery of health services and humanitarian aid, regardless of citizenship, race, religion, political affiliation, gender, and economic status. Utmost attention must be provided in addressing the particular needs of the most vulnerable and conflict-affected communities, such as indigenous peoples, refugees, stateless, asylum seekers, and IDPs, such as their access to clean water and sanitation, to protective and hygiene equipment like face masks, and to immediate testing, quality medical care, and social protection. The special needs and disproportionate risks for displaced women must be addressed; 

3.) Ensure that the crisis response, including implementing state services and security forces, abides by the existing standards and principles of international human rights law. Declarations of state of emergencies, community-quarantines, lockdowns, and restriction of freedom of movement must not come at the expense of the right to freedom of expression and access to information. Internet shutdowns that are in place in conflict-affected areas must be lifted, and context-specific information dissemination must be put in place in order to ensure every person is informed on the status of the pandemic and the government response. Emergency powers enacted into law must have clear limitations and have oversight and grievance mechanisms; 

4.) Take steps to ensure support for and the safety of people involved in crisis response, especially health care workers on the front lines, such as by providing them adequate protective gear and equipment and psychosocial support; and, 

5.) Divert resources from arms and military spending to healthcare, social services and peacebuilding.

It is thus a good sign that the Philippine government, the National Democratic Front of the Philippines, (NDFP) and the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) in South Thailand declared their respective unilateral ceasefires to focus on responding to the COVID-19 onslaught. We eagerly await for the Indonesian government and the Organisasi Papua Merdeka (OPM) or the Free Papua Movement to follow suit.

It behooves us however that the Burmese/Myanmar military (Tatmadaw) flatly rejected the UN ceasefire plea claiming it is not needed. The Tatmadaw is locked in an ongoing brutal armed combat with countless ethnic armies in Burma/Myanmar. One is the Arakan Army (AA) which it earlier designated a terrorist group. The AA hails from the Rakhine State composed of mostly ethnic Rakhine. 

The Rohingya people also live in Rakhine. Almost a million Rohingya were displaced since 2016 due to what a UN report classified as a virtual genocide perpetrated by the Tatmadaw. The Tatmadaw and civilian government led by the Nobel Laureate and then democracy icon Aung San Syu Kyi claim that the recent conflict with the Rohingya started in response to attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) composed mostly of Rohingya insurgents. Most of the Rohingya, who are Muslim, now live in squalid and frail refugee camps inside Bangladesh. (READ: Scores of detained Rohingya freed in Myanmar as virus fears mount)

Brad Adams of HumanRights Watch says that health conditions are already disastrous for displaced people in Rakhine, Kachin, and northern Shan camps, and now COVID-19 is threatening to decimate these vulnerable communities.

The situation in Burma/Myanmar drives home the point for the necessity of heeding the UN call for a ceasefire. Even if only to create humanitarian corridors, and mitigate the impact of the virus on communities whose healthcare systems are already devastated. 

Perhaps that is why more than one half of those who signed IID’s/GPPAC’s petition were civil society groups and individuals from Burma/Myanmar.

The UN call is an opportunity for ceasefires to be sustained beyond just the pandemic, even if the initial reason is only for humanitarian purposes. A global ceasefire can be a springboard for coordination, cooperation and trust building, which can be the basis for a broader and formal peace process dialogues. 

But mechanisms to ensure trust should be in place. Unilateral ceasefires must be turned into a reciprocal one, with clear monitoring and accountability mechanisms – even if this will be difficult to do since most attention and efforts are understandably on emergency response. If no reciprocal ceasefires can be achieved for now, third party actors and the public should then closely monitor unilateral ceasefires. Political disincentives must be clear for violations of a unilateral ceasefire. Through sensitizing the wider public of the need for these ceasefires, and proactively calling out violations from both sides. 

This is what happened in an incident last March 28 where a clash transpired  between the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the New People’s Army (NPA) of the NDFP after their ceasefire declarations that needed to be called out, regardless of their respective versions of what happened. Without clear mechanisms agreed by both parties, the only foundation of these unilateral ceasefires is the moral legitimacy the parties have in the eye of the public. It is incumbent then for civil society to call them out; for those unilateral ceasefires not just to remain on paper and if calls for peace do not linger as a mere plea. 

That is why in these trying and anxious times, solidarity among peoples and nations is needed more than ever. 

It is heartening to witness the already burgeoning solidarity among peoples that is sweeping the planet through viral actions, petitions, webinars, chat groups, debates, analysis, policy discussions, fundraising, and mobilizations, among others.

Let us further harness the people-to-people solidarity which the region’s civil society have forged in its engagement with ASEAN since the mid 1990’s starting with its accompaniment and support for the self-determination struggle of the East Timorese people. This continued with the democracy movements for Burma, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines and in engaging ASEAN through the inception of its charter. This persisted in shadowing its summits through the ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ASEAN Peoples Forum (ACSC/APF) and in calling to task governments such as on the disappearance of the Laotian social development leader Sombath Somphone. 

With some of the ASEAN states having binding obligations in their peace processes, these can be buttressed or aggressively implemented in the light of the COVID 19 menace. 

With the active engagement of its citizens, this is the moment for ASEAN and its member-states to act as indeed a “people-centered, people-oriented, caring, and sharing community”. – Rappler.com

The Initiatives for International Dialogue (IID) is a regional advocacy institution doing policy,
campaigns, and solidarity work to advocate people-to-people, South-South solidarity through its
peacebuilding and thematic work in the region. IID is a dynamic and constantly evolving
learning and resource institution. IID develops partnerships with other groups in the region
through its engagement modalities (people-to-people, South-South, democratization, learning
exchanges, gender, dialogue and coalition building).

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