A little over four years ago, on September 14, 2009, the Republic of the Philippines became the last ASEAN state to ratify the Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response, or the AADMER, marking, in the words of then-Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan, a “significant milestone in ASEAN’s collective efforts to build a disaster-resilient community.” Manila’s approval came right after ASEAN led the Cyclone Nargis relief effort, the most successful disaster response the organization ever orchestrated. Four years after it had been criticized for a “non-existent” response to the Boxing Day Tsunami, the supranational body had been the recipient of global praise for its handling of Nargis. Its leaders had overseen a program that opened Myanmar to aid from a global community that skeptical leaders in Naypyidaw had historically refused to engage. Through the ASEAN Humanitarian Task Force and its subsidiary, the Tripartite Core Group, the organization set goals, drafted plans, and even established the first-ever ASEAN-sponsored fund explicitly for disaster relief. The outlook seemed overwhelmingly positive. There were still challenges ahead, but the initiative spurred by Nargis led to a sense of confidence amongst regional leaders and academics that any future hurdles could be met.
Fast forward four years, and the confidence represented by the passage of the AADMER is waning. On November 8, 2013, Typhoon Haiyan made landfall, bringing the full force of one of the most destructive storms in history against the central part of the Philippine archipelago. The United Nations has already reported that over eleven million people have been affected by Haiyan (known as Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines), with fatality estimates as high as 10,000. The isolation, lack of development, and poverty in Leyte and Samar, the two provinces most ravaged by Haiyan, have begun to echo Banda Aceh following the Boxing Day Tsunami, suggesting parallels to a dark chapter that the ASEAN Secretariat would certainly prefer to avoid.
Yet the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has been conspicuously absent. Despite the immense destruction inflicted upon one of its one own, ASEAN has not stepped up and led. Instead, that mantle has been seized by the United States and the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Worse, beyond providing reporting and shuffling staffers through the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance (AHA), ASEAN has done comparatively little in any capacity.
It is not insignificant that Philippine President Benigno Aquino III failed to mention ASEAN during his first address about the relief. Although the director of the AHA announced an aid package amounting to $500,000 on the same day, November 12, Washington notified Manila that it would send $20 million together with an aircraft carrier, the USS George Washington, to the region. Add in multimillion-dollar pledges from Australia, Japan, the United Kingdom and others, and it is easy to see the relative meagerness of ASEAN’s contribution, disturbing given Filipino membership in ASEAN. Some observers have pointed to structural weaknesses within the organization to try to explain this perceived failure, but the organization demonstrated during Nargis that it does possess the ability to institutionalize effective mechanisms for emergency management.
However, it is still early. The devastation in Tacloban, Daanbantayn, Guiuan and the numerous other cities impacted by Haiyan will take months, if not years, to repair. So ASEAN could still show the international community that its response to Cyclone Nargis was not an exception to the organization’s longer history of weak and ineffective disaster management. There are even signs that this might be happening. In an interview with BBC World News, Secretary-General Le Luong Minh stated that “What we provided is only initial, there is more support to be given.” In the days since its initial $500,000 contribution, the AHA has started to supervise the arrival of more personnel and supplies. Under the ASEAN banner, Brunei and Indonesia have sent C-130 and CN-235 transport planes full of food, medicine and other important items. The AHA is even in the process of constructing a permanent office in Tacloban. The prospects, therefore, are not entirely negative. Nonetheless, there is as yet no evidence of more powerful mechanisms being utilized, namely, the ASEAN Disaster Management and Emergency Relief Fund formalized by the AADMER. If that fund can follow the same trajectory as the Fund for ASEAN after its creation in 1969, the benefits could be immense, not only for the Philippines, but for the credibility of ASEAN.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote in Faust, “The time has come to prove by deeds / that man will not quake before the pit.” ASEAN stands before its own pit right now. Only time will tell if Nargis was just a bright spot in an otherwise depressing history, or the beginning of an significant improvement in the capabilities of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Steven Keithley studies international history at Georgetown University.