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Understanding Humanitarian Action In South East Asia (2)

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Like East Asia, communitarianism serves as a fundamental trait of Southeast Asian understandings of humanitarian obligation. However, this responsibility tends not to be conceived in a vertical or ‘top-down’ fashion, as seen in East Asian societies, where the primary duty to act rests with the ruling elites and the state. Rather, the imperative to help others in need within the Southeast Asian context tends to be couched more in horizontal terms, based on personal relationships and religious beliefs. For instance, with Buddhism as the national religion, Thai society is founded upon a strong belief in karma (or dhamma), compassion (metta) and benevolence (garuna) (Kumar, 2001). Even the Thai translation of ‘humanitarianism’ – manudsaya-dhamma – is culturally and religiously loaded, as it refers to the ethics that underlie human relations and stems from an understanding of the Brahmavihara, comprising the four Buddhist virtues of benevolence, compassion, empathetic joy and equanimity. Likewise, in Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar Buddhism has had a profound influence on people’s humanitarian outlook. According to a Thai government official at the time, Thailand’s relatively ‘open’ attitude toward Indochinese refugees in the 1970s was purportedly because ‘We’re a Buddhist county and must abide by Buddhist precepts. We have a long tradition of helping refugeess’ (Comptroller General, 1979: 4). Thus, whereas Confucianism is based on a ‘negative’ understanding of reciprocity (i.e. ‘do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you’), Buddhism is grounded in a more ‘positive’ understanding, epitomised in the popular Thai adage of ‘doing good as bringing forth goodness and doing evil as bringing forth evil’ (tumdee daidee, tumchua daichua).

Similarly, for the predominantly Islamic societies of Indonesia and Malaysia, ‘religious constructions of philanthropy’ are reflected in societal ‘patterns of giving’ (Fernandez, 2009: 26). In Indonesia, where Islamic philanthropy was introduced as early as the fifteenth century and Catholic philanthropy in the early nineteenth century, various forms of giving take place on a personal level as well as through religious charities and faith organisations. In such societies, where faith has an almost omnipresent role, charitable giving – as expressed through zakat (obligatory giving as required by Islamic sharia law), sedekah (‘spontaneous’ charitable gifts that can come in the form of money or volunteering) and wakaf (voluntary gifts of land or property to be used for mosques, pondoks1 and the like) – amounts to the realisation of one’s religious obligations. As is likewise the case for humanitarian action in China and Japan, the line separating humanitarian charity and duty in Southeast Asia is far from clear-cut.

With regard to the coordination of humanitarian activities, the state undoubtedly remains an extremely important actor in Southeast Asia, especially in countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia, whose distinctive geographical features and susceptibility to natural disasters render centralised response mechanisms necessary. But just as the state is of paramount importance to the

effective delivery of humanitarian assistance, so it can also work to frustrate such efforts, owing to political interests and the lack of transparency characteristic of Southeast Asian governments. During the Cambodian refugee crisis in the late 1970s, for instance, the Thai government was accused of placing political interest over humanitarian imperatives by providing assistance to Khmer Rouge ‘refugees’ in the wake of the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1978, and the toppling of the Khmer Rouge (see Terry, 2002). Concerns that the collapse of the Khmer Rouge would mean communist control of Cambodia prompted the Thai government to announce an ‘open door’ policy, supported by pledges from Western countries – notably the United States – to provide further humanitarian assistance. Effectively allowing the Khmer Rouge to recuperate and regain strength in holding centres in Thailand led many to criticise the Thai government for tacitly assisting a regime responsible for severe human abuses, instead of focusing humanitarian efforts on

those suffering inside Cambodia itself. More recently, humanitarian relief operations in Southeast Asia have been conducted with an increased degree of autonomy from the state. Here, the roles played by external donors, national media, civil society organisations, religious charities and institutions, as well as the private sector, are proving critical – in certain cases, more so than governments themselves – in providing assistance and mobilising volunteer services. In the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in March 2011, for instance, the Thai government was strongly criticised in the country’s media on the grounds that its contribution to the response – five million baht (equivalent to approximately $170,000) in assistance, plus relief supplies – was too small. A nationwide campaign spearheaded by the country’s major media outlets, private businesses and banks, as well as charitable organisations such as the Thai Red Cross, raised funds from Thai society to assist in Japanese relief efforts, with donations totalling over 400m baht (Watcharasakwet, Hookway and Yuniar, 2011). Similar fundraising activities took place following the 2010 Haiti earthquake and in the wake of floods in Thailand in 2011. In Vietnam, the Vietnamese Red Cross Society also played a key role in raising funds to send to Japan. A similar pattern is emerging in Indonesia, which has experienced a surge in humanitarian activism at the local level, as humanitarian assistance is increasingly provided.()

by Pichamon Yeophantong

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