Less than a month after the Association of Southeast Asian Nations hosted the historic “Special Asean-Japan Ministerial Meeting” on April 9, I am impressed by the natural goodwill my fellow Asean citizens are ready to share with our Japanese neighbours.
Natural disasters are no respecter of borders or countries. Similar scenes, and worse, have been witnessed in Japan. This metre-deep earth slip occurred on the road in Sichon district of Nakhon Si Thammarat following heavy rain.
With the aim of reaching out to the people stranded in evacuation centres, children still shaken and all Japanese friends-at-large victimised by the triple tragedy of the Great East Japan Earthquake one way or another, Asean is planning to send the Asean Youth Caravan of Goodwill their way early June.
The Caravan will travel to Northeast Japan and visit a few evacuation centres, perform some cultural shows, share personal experiences from similar natural disasters in the recent past and strengthen the “human bond” that has long existed between the Japanese and Asean peoples.
As in its name, the “Special Asean-Japan Ministerial Meeting” was special in that it touched on people’s hearts. Disaster is not a stranger to Asean, as eight of 10 Asean countries have been ravaged by significant disasters in the last seven years. Throughout the meeting, I sensed how the intense sorrow felt by Japanese Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto and his delegates were also shared by foreign ministers and delegates from Asean countries.
Our region was the unvolunteered host to two prominent disasters of the century, the great Indian Ocean Tsunami of December 2004 and Cyclone Nargis of May 2008. We have experienced simultaneous disasters in multiple countries almost every year. In the same month of the triple tragedy in Japan, Shan State of Burma experienced a strong 6.8- magnitude earthquake while southern Thailand, notably in my own hometown of Nakhon Si Thammarat, suffered from prolonged floods.
Many Asean countries are still in the midst of recovery from disasters of the past two years. These disasters have taken nearly 500 million precious lives. Millions of people have been affected, and billions of US dollars have been spent on recovery. These are outrageous numbers for our region of 600 million people and a combined GDP of US$2 trillion.
Japan has always been a standby and generous partner in times of these disasters. As fellow Asian countries, we cannot help but feel compelled to reciprocate the unselfish generosity that Japan has shown us in many disaster situations. But what can we give to the government and people of Japan, known to be among the most resilient, self-reliant people?
As I was contemplating this question, the Fukuda doctrine of 1977 came to mind. The then Japanese prime minister Takeo Fukuda had declared this doctrine as one that is centred on a relationship of mutual confidence and trust, based on “heart-to-heart” understanding. For the last 34 years, Asean and Japan’s cooperation has been founded on this “heart-to-heart” relationship.
So, I thought to myself, this principle shall guide our assistance to the ongoing crisis in Japan.
The Special Meeting concluded with a motion that Asean will always stand by the Japanese people, and support the recovery process in response to Japan’s needs. I noted that economic recovery is important, but a more immediate need is human bonding.
With this spirit, we tapped into the ready Southeast Asian civil society organisations, volunteers and non-governmental organisations ready to demonstrate their support by helping displaced communities recover and rise to their feet. There are many scholars from Asean countries who graduated from Japan’s universities and have lived in Japan for years. They too are surely ready to help Japan in areas needed for recovery. This people-to-people approach is an example of the kind of “heart-to-heart” solidarity that the people of Asean can offer to the people of Japan.
The meeting had tasked me as the Asean Humanitarian Assistance Coordinator, another title entrusted to me by the Asean leaders in 2009, to facilitate Asean’s collective efforts to support Japan, and report the outcome of our efforts to the 18th Asean Summit in May and 19th Summit later this year in Indonesia. I humbly took on this assignment, which reminded me of the days when the foreign ministers of Asean tasked me to help coordinate the post-Nargis relief and recovery efforts in Burma.
The triple tragedy has also brought the necessity for all of us to re-configure the whole political, economic and socio-cultural relationship between Asean and Japan. Some short-term economic adjustments will be needed, such as in the areas of production, energy supply, food and tourism. Reconstruction of the devastated areas will stimulate the stagnant economy and help the region’s overall economic well-being.
Asean countries could contribute to reconstruction efforts in Japan by sending construction materials, and skilled workers to help in building more efficient and disaster resilient structures. In the aftermath of the nuclear crisis, Asean could also benefit from working with Japan in research and development projects designed to find alternative energy and reduce its dependence on nuclear energy and imported oil.
The various regional mechanisms in Asean, such as the Asean-Japan Strategic Partnership, Asean+3, East Asia Summit, and the Asean Regional Forum, will also have to be optimised. The Master Plan on Asean Connectivity should focus not only on the hardware but also people-to-people relations.
The cardinal lesson that can be drawn from Japan’s triple tragedy is the importance of investing in prevention, mitigation and preparedness, and combining development with disaster risk reduction approaches.
The terrible toll in Japan could have been worse without nearly a century of planning and tough enforcement. Japan offers valuable lessons that Asean could apply in the process of institutionalising the Asean Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response. Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, in his opening remarks, said that Asean will have to expedite its own mechanisms to be prepared for the inevitable, and that the Asean Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management (AHA Centre), being set up in Jakarta, must be in place without further delay.
Regardless of the triple tragedy, Japan continues to support Asean in the areas of disaster preparedness and risk reduction. During the meeting, Mr Matsumoto proposed to conduct an Asean-Japan seminar by end of the year, to share experiences of the recent disasters, and to dispatch experts to the AHA Centre.
Friendship, humanity, empathy, kindness and compassion were felt by all in the Asean hall as the Special Meeting concluded. I thank Indonesia, the chair of Asean, especially President Yudhoyono and Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, for their leadership in taking Asean through this heart-to-heart journey with the people of Japan. Together with the rest of the world, Asean will stand by the Japanese government and the people as they take on the task of building an even more resilient and better Japan.
Surin Pitsuwan is Secretary-General of Asean and Asean Humanitarian Assistance Coordinator. The views expressed here are personal.