The Shangri-la Dialogue

By Friday May 30th, 2008 No Comments


Ladies and Gentlemen,

My sincere thanks to IISS for inviting me to speak at this plenary session. I have always enjoyed sharing my thought at this Dialogue.

I joined the earlier speakers in extending Malaysia deepest sympathy and expressed our solidarity with Myanmar and Peoples Republic of China in these trying times. Both these countries deserve all the support and assistance so that lives in these affected areas could returned to normalcy. As for Myanmar, ASEAN challenge is to ensure that it can act expeditiously to prevent further loss of lives.

Let me begin by briefly dwelling on what a complex emergency is so that we can keep our discussion more focused. The conventional definition of complex emergency refers to a situation where there is a total or considerable breakdown of authority that leads to disruption of political, economic and social systems. The primary or root cause of the situation is violence or conflicts be it internal or external. The situation in most cases requires regional or international response that goes beyond the mandate or capacity of any single agency.

The complexity lies in the outcome where citizens are either losing their lives or are being displaced and unable to sustain their livelihood due to high levels of violence. In short, therefore a complex emergency is where politics and violence come together to create consequences that affect the sanctity of human life and dignity in ways that affronts our notion of humanity. Such complex emergencies have occurred in recent times in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Iraq, and Timor Leste, to name a few. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the number of refugees at the end of 2006 stood at 9.9 million, the highest in four years. The developing world hosted 7.1 million refugees, which is 72% of the global refugee population.

While I am not challenging the conventional approach of what a complex emergency is, I am of the view that it should be seen in a wider context to include situations where a state is badly affected by natural disasters. I mean the scale or magnitude of the disaster is such that it goes beyond the capability of that particular nation to manage it.

The humanitarian catastrophe unfolded by such disasters large scale deaths, lethal mix of starvation and poverty has the direct effect of causing illness, more deaths, displacement of population, disruption of food production and the destruction of infrastructure, are no less severe than a conflict situation. Certainly, they deserve our collective attention and action. Obviously, the December 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami and its impact on Acheh come to our mind. And of course, a very recent example in this regard is Myanmar where the Irrawaddy Delta, the food bowl of the country, has been devastated by a major cyclone.

That brings me to the proposal that I put forward at this forum in 2006 when I spoke on constructing a regional security community. In view of the growing frequency and severity of natural disasters, I then mooted the idea of setting up a regional-based humanitarian relief coordination centre. A centre to which we could devote a set of forces, made up of civilian and military personnel, conduct rapid assessment of needs and coordinate regional efforts in response to calamities speedily and effectively.

It is two years now since I mooted the idea. I am glad that there have been some positive developments since then. Efforts have been stepped up to implement the ASEAN Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response to respond to disaster emergencies through concerted efforts at all levels. Pursuant to the agreement, a mechanism in the form of an interim ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management has been set up in Jakarta, Indonesia.

The centre, I believe, which would be fully operational by the end of this year, would facilitate cooperation and coordination among the regional states and the relevant UN and international organisations. The agreement also provides the creation of Standby Arrangements that have paved the way for active deliberations on formulation of Standard Operating Procedures.

Even at the ASEAN Regional Forum level, parallel efforts are being taken to enhance capacity building of member states as well as to provide collective response to calamities.

In the midst of all these positive developments, it is rather unfortunate that we had to witness a member of our ASEAN family, Myanmar, struck by Cyclone Nargis some three weeks ago. The humanitarian catastrophe unfolded in the aftermath of the disaster more than 100,000 people have lost their lives, thousands of residential and public buildings were destroyed or severely damaged, transport and communication infrastructures collapsed and many lost their livelihoods.

The enormity of the disaster deserves nothing less than a massive international assistance in terms of stabilisation, rehabilitation and reconstruction. But there are obstacles that impede such international assistance. While we sympathise with the situation in Myanmar, we respect its sovereignty and resort to ASEAN led initiative to deliver humanitarian aid and assistance. Malaysia welcomes Myanmar turst and confidence in ASEAN role in coordinating the international response. ASEAN has neither been a destabilizing force in the region nor interfered into the internal affairs of its member countries.

I believe the establishment of the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management, although interim in nature, in some way is a test case as to how best it could coordinate regional response to Myanmar. In this regard, I am encouraged by the leadership role undertaken by ASEAN. It has established an ASEAN-led coordinating mechanism to facilitate the effective distribution and utilisation of assistance from the international community; established a Task Force under the ASEAN Secretary General to work with the UN and the Government of Myanmar to realise ASEAN-led mechanism¬Ě.

It is widely argued that traditional relief mechanism which incorporates the government, business and volunteer organizations that for years had been adequate to meet the need for relief works were found to be inefficient, ineffective or both when dealing with crises involving an entire nation. Challenges of this magnitude requires a more comprehensive and dynamic approach. In this context, let me now offer some suggestions to develop the capacity-building of the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance.

Firstly, it has to be recognized that military is a critical component in Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief. It has the capability and experience to handle such crisis situations. Although there are diverging views with regards to the military involvement, I believe there is a wider consensus among the ASEAN countries that the armed forces indeed have a key role in this area.

Secondly, management of the centre should be such that it can provide the leadership for regional response. It is the glue that binds the multiple requirements with diverse contributors and response efforts. It should be capable of developing coordination mechanism based on comprehensive assessment of the crises and identify the participants responsibilities and priorities.

Thirdly, in view of the involvement of multiple agencies, close coordination and cooperation are required among those involved in order to achieve unity of efforts, reduce delays and eliminate redundancy as well as the risk of inappropriate use of funds and resources. This also includes the need for effective civil-military coordination. Equally important is the need to overcome inter-agency turf battles which, sometimes, impede the smooth flow of operations.

Last but not least, information sharing: information is only as valuable as the information shared. The quality and timeliness of sharing of well formulated data can be crucial for the success of the complex emergency operations.

I am of the view that such efforts should not be undertaken on the basis of a unilateral action. Iraq is a classic example in this case. At the same time, it is of utmost importance to respect the sovereignty of the affected state to dispel any fear of interference into the internal affairs of that particular state. Therefore, upon restoring security there should be graceful exit by the countries involved in the process.

Peace building in a complex emergency must be based on trust and transparency. The mediator should not dictate terms and conditions in cases where there is a need for parties to negotiate settlements. Instead, it is important to create a conducive environment for them to negotiate to ensure lasting peace.

I hope that my brief presentation this morning has given a new dimension to widen the scope of complex emergency to include situations of massive disasters warranting large scale humanitarian assistance and relief efforts. And I look forward to sharing some of your thoughts.

Thank you.

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