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Jun 19, 2008 (AFP)‚ ASEAN’s response to Burma’s devastating cyclone showed the bloc is ready to shoulder its responsibilities, the head of the Southeast Asian group said on Wednesday.
Cyclone Nargis pounded the southwest Irrawaddy Delta and the main city of Rangoon in early May, leaving more than 133,000 people dead or missing.
Burma’s isolated military regime largely barred foreign aid workers from the delta, sparking worldwide outrage, but relief workers have slowly moved in after the junta began to ease restrictions and asked its fellow ASEAN nations to coordinate the international effort.
"We have been able to open the humanitarian space," Surin Pitsuwan, who is secretary general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, told a forum in Singapore.
"I think that’s the success of ASEAN. I think that’s the resiliency of ASEAN. I think that’s a new ASEAN ready to take on the responsibility placed on it, expected of it," he added.
The 10-nation bloc has often been criticised for not dealing firmly enough with the junta, but Surin said nearly 300 ASEAN assessment team volunteers were now in the delta working "with full support, collaboration from the government of Burma."
"It just so happened that we are being baptised by the Cyclone Nargis. That is the test of our new ASEAN," Surin said.
Describing himself as "the cheerleader in chief" of ASEAN, Surin said the spirit of the bloc’s new charter "has a lot to do with the way in which we are now operating."
At its annual summit last year in Singapore, ASEAN leaders signed a charter which committed member states to notions of democracy and human rights and for the first time set out principles and rules for the group.
Six ASEAN members have ratified the charter and Surin told reporters he is "very confident" the other four will endorse it in time for the group’s summit in Bangkok later this year.
ASEAN said in early June that its team had begun to deploy in the Burmese delta to start a long-awaited assessment of those affected by the storm.
It said then that its advance teams would compile a first-hand "progress report" for a round-table meeting in Rangoon on 24 June.
A day later, the bloc’s humanitarian task force will also meet in the city, Surin said.
The ASEAN team is working under a tripartite arrangement with the UN and the government in Burma, which has frequently embarrassed its neighbours with its refusal to shift toward democracy.