Understanding Humanitarian Action In South East Asia (1)


What does ‘humanitarianism’ signify? And how have humanitarian practices evolved in different societies and at different points in time? It is frequently assumed that there exists a common, universal definition of this idea. While this is not a completely misguided belief, determining the normative and practical parameters of humanitarianism and humanitarian action has proved to be an exceedingly difficult and contentious process.

What constitutes ‘legitimate’ humanitarian action, in particular, has been subject to heated debate, as different humanitarian actors tend to espouse varying interpretations of humanitarianism and, by implication, prioritise different humanitarian objectives. Denoting a way of thinking as well as a prerogative to act, hmanitarianism’ clearly eludes simple definition. While there is growing recognition that to speak of a universal understanding of humanitarianism – whether at the national, regional or global levels – is inherently problematic considering the multicultural nature of any given society and the diverse actors involved in providing humanitarian aid, there remains a lacuna in existing scholarship on how this amorphous idea has been understood and acted upon in non-Western contexts. Especially in Asia, the dissemination of humanitarian values and ideals remains an understudied subject despite the tumultuous social and political history of the region. A study of the historical evolution of humanitarian action withinsuch a distinctive political and cultural setting is, therefore, warranted in order to produce a more nuanced understanding of how indigenous sentiments of humanitarianism have interacted with Westernderived concepts to inform the development of modern humanitarian action in the region, and the extent to which the use of a common language of humanitarian obligation is feasible.

Southeast Asian writing on humanitarianism tends to emphasise the technical and policy aspects of humanitarian action, such as the delivery and coordination of humanitarian assistance, more so than

the normative content of humanitarianism itself. This is to be expected given how this work is intended to meet a growing demand for policy-oriented research that can provide national governments and regional organisations like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) with practical recommendations and guidelines for enhancing humanitarian assistance in crisis situations. Especially with regard to analyses originating from the Philippines and Indonesia, humanitarian debates are often operational in nature. As a result, while there has been a gradual shift in focus in East Asian literature from response to prevention and preparedness, the majority of Southeast Asian scholarship remains focused on optimising response strategies.

Humanitarian debates in Southeast Asia, moreover, often centre on humanitarian action in the context of disasters (both natural and man-made), indicating how the region’s governments prefer the less politicised’ nature of disaster relief assistance, as against the provision of assistance in times of war, religious conflict or social and political turmoil. While this is not to suggest that disaster relief assistance from states is necessarily divorced from political motives and interests (China, for one, has frequently been accused of employing disaster diplomacy’ to garner support from other states), participation in (international) disaster relief operation by goverments is generally less controversial than involvement in peace-building operations that could potentially amount to interference in the internal affairs of other states, though this does seem to be changing. Indonesia’s contributions to UN peacekeeping have grown steadily, making it Southeast Asia’s largest contributor, with peacekeeping forces stationed in Sudan, Haiti and the Philippines, among others.

Vietnam has reportedly announced that its troops will begin participating in UN peacekeeping missions by early 2014 (AP, 2013). For ASEAN, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief has become a major area of interstate cooperation, featuring prominently in the policy agenda of the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting (ADMM). Significantly, the ADMM has issued concept papers on the ‘Use of ASEAN Military Assets and Capacities in Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief’ and ‘Defence Establishments and Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) Cooperation on NonTraditional Security’. Promising research has also emerged from Southeast Asia on other humanitarian-related issues, including the development of philanthropy and philanthropic institutions and the role of religious organisations in relief provision; and the evolution of institutional and legal frameworks for state-led humanitarian action and civic engagement, the latter of which is marked by the involvement of local and international NGOs, as well as the private sector, in organising humanitarian assistance (Riyanto, 2012; Fernandez, 2009). This speaks to a consensus among observers on how civil society, businesses, religious institutions and faith organisations constitute exceedingly important actors in response coordination and relief distribution, especially in places which may be difficult for external groups unfamiliar with the local terrain to access (as was the case for parts of Myanmar struck by Cyclone Nargis).

This has consequently led many observers to argue in favour of these non-state actors, acknowledging their integral role working alongside government entities to provide public goods and, more specifically, improve humanitarian activism in the public sphere. This trend is evident in the establishment of ASEAN’s Volunteer Programme following Cyclone Nargis, which aims to support Myanmar’s recovery through the implementation of community-led livelihood and disaster risk reduction initiatives’ (ASEAN Volunteers, n.d.). Crucially, the active involvement of grassroots Burmese health and youth groups, among others, in the aftermath of Nargis has since prompted the gradual opening up of Myanmar’s embryonic public sphere, with organisations like the Metta Development Foundation, originally founded with the aim of assisting communities affected by Civil conflict in Myanmar, also extending their activities into the realm of humanitarian disaster relief and reconstruction. ()

by Pichamon Yeophantong


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