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July 25, 2008

Asean Regional Forum:
Joint taskforce to take on disasters

Asia's top security forum agreed Thursday on military exercises aimed at forging a regional taskforce to deal with calamities like those that struck Myanmar and China this year, reported AFP.

The Asean Regional Forum resolved two years ago to develop guidelines for joint disaster relief, but the confused response to the Myanmar cyclone showed up the fact that little has been done since then.

Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo said Thursday's meeting of the 27-nation security dialogue, which takes in the 10-member Southeast Asian bloc as well as the US, China and Russia, had gone "quite deep" into the issue.

He said that as well as endorsing a joint US-Philippines disaster exercise, the ministers had established procedures on deploying military resources and "even having designated forces in standby readiness".

"It makes a lot of sense to conduct such exercises, you don't want to be working together for the first time when there are natural disasters," Yeo told a press conference.

"If you have practised before, if you know the radio frequencies, if you share a common language and have common procedures, then you can act so much more effectively."

Yeo said that as the host of the ARF meeting, Singapore encouraged other countries to join the US-Philippines exercise.

An official told AFP that the exercise in the disaster-prone country could begin next year.

"The Philippines and the US have initiated discussions on potential sites and dates, identified logistical procedures and requirements" and looked at proposed rules for participation, said the ARF chairman's statement, obtained by AFP.

Disaster preparedness has risen high on the regional agenda after Cyclone Nargis struck military-ruled Myanmar and an earthquake in southwest China together left more than 200,000 people dead or missing in May.

Asean was criticised for failing to pressure Myanmar to open its borders to foreign relief workers in the immediate aftermath of the cyclone, but won over many of its critics by eventually leading a joint international aid effort.

The US sent four US Navy ships loaded with relief supplies and aircraft to the coast of Myanmar after the cyclone but the military government -- notoriously mistrustful of the West -- rejected their help and that of other foreign militaries.

Yeo stressed that "no aid could be forced on any other country" and highlighted differences between Myanmar's response and that of Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami hit its province of Aceh.

"In Myanmar, the warships carrying supplies anchored off its waters caused confusion, created distrust which impeded the flow of international aid to Myanmar at that time," he said.

"In the case of Indonesia after the tsunami, foreign forces were welcomed with no impediments and the result was great speed for bringing assistance to the affected areas."

ARF foreign ministers adopted a statement on disaster management and emergency response when they met in 2006, two years after the tsunami killed 220,000 people in nations around the region.

The agreement called for "operating procedures" to be drawn up on civilian and military cooperation for humanitarian operations, and an inventory of military transport assets available in emergencies. Those calls were not followed up by action.

Asean also agreed in 2004 to establish a joint humanitarian relief centre in Jakarta, but that is still not in place, while a 2005 pact on disaster management has not been fully implemented.

"We've got to be all together better prepared to help out in a crisis in any one of our countries," New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters said Thursday.

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