External Publication

Collaborative Governance to Achieve ASEAN Community Vision 2025– Implementing the Blueprint

Published on 7 January 2022

Policy Reports
COP26: Much Achieved, Huge Opportunities Missed

Published on 18 November 2021


World Leaders Loath to Quit Fossil Fuels

Prior to COP26, a slew of reports were released to warn governments of the consequences of failure to slash emissions. Fortunately, the Glasgow climate deal directly referenced coal and fossil fuels, pledged new targets to end deforestation, and urged countries to speed up the submission of their carbon reduction plans. These actions show a stronger determination to close the existing emissions gap, which will if not addressed raise temperatures a devastating 2.4oC by the end of the century.

Given the fast-closing window to reach the Paris Agreement target, developed countries’ promising to double adaptation funding to developing countries implies an acknowledgment of increasingly worsening climate-induced disasters, preparing for which can no longer be delayed.

Although setting higher targets reflects progress, it does little to ensure that failures to deliver on pledges will not be repeated. Developed countries have not fulfilled their decade-old promise to deliver $100 billion to developing countries annually. Deforestation initiatives have failed to meet expectations. Ending the use of coal and fossil fuels has been slow despite fierce calls in recent years to do so.

At the heart of these failures are the global economic system and national economic agendas. Developed countries seek to maintain certain levels of resource-intensive lifestyles. On the other hand, developing countries aspire to lift their populations out of poverty and increase their standards of living, possibly emulating developed countries. Continuous exploitation of natural resources is inevitable to supporting such economic models. Measures such as deforestation are thus inherently difficult to carry out.

Further, cheap energy is critical to keeping overall production costs low. It is not surprising that watered-down language such as “unfiltered” coal “phase-down” and “inefficient” fossil fuel subsidies phase-out made it into the final deal. As long as they make economic sense, coal and fossil fuels are here to stay.

Countries may forge ahead with more ambitious climate targets, but unless efforts are made to address problems related to resource-intensive consumerism and accompanying economic system, the goal of meeting the 1.5oC target is likely to remain on life support.

Financing ASEAN Disaster Management and Resilience

by Lina Gong and S. Nanthini
Published on 4 November 2021


Between 2019 and 2020, Southeast Asia reported 530 natural hazards — from earthquakes to cyclones and floods. COVID-19 has significantly heightened the financial constraints on the disaster management sector, with only 38 per cent of UN appeals for emergency response funding met in 2021. With the likelihood of concurrent disasters only increasing, the pressure to finance ASEAN’s disaster management is increasing.

Residents are seen in their submerged home after heavy flooding in Santichon Songkroh community. Santichon Songkroh community, a small community along Bangkok Noi Canal is now facing daily flood influenced from water walls leakage and heavy rainfall from Tropical Storm Kompasu, 18 October 2021. (Photo by Phobthum Yingpaiboonsuk / SOPA Images/Sipa USA via Reuters Connect)

With the pandemic causing a global economic downturn, uncertainties regarding the funding support of partners threaten ASEAN’s disaster management. ASEAN should explore unconventional financing mechanisms and instruments to support its disaster-related operations, including market-based and technology-driven solutions.

The current funding arrangements for ASEAN’s disaster management relies heavily on member state contributions and external partners. The limitations are increasingly evident. The ASEAN Disaster Management and Emergency Response (ADMER) Fund was established to fund disaster-related work and is solely reliant on voluntary contributions from member states, but it only accounts for a modest share of overall spending on disaster management. The ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management (AHA Centre) had a revenue inflow of US$4.3 million in 2020 — US$900,000 from the annual equal contributions of member states, US$2.7 million from external partners and US$36,800 from the ADMER Fund.

ASEAN has initiated several reforms and innovations to generate funding within the region. It endorsed a concept paper on the Strategic and Holistic Initiative to Link ASEAN Responses to Emergency (ASEAN SHIELD) in August 2021. One strategic component outlined in the concept paper was to link the people of ASEAN to regional relief and recovery efforts by promoting a participative and socially responsible community. This will involve establishing a platform that will enable the peoples of ASEAN to contribute during natural disasters, such as through the ADMER Fund.

The capital market has also provided solutions to the financial challenges facing disaster management in ASEAN. The Philippines had its first two sovereign catastrophe bonds, worth US$225 million, issued by the World Bank in 2019. The bonds provided financial protection against losses from earthquakes and tropical cyclones for three years, strengthening the state’s long-term disaster management capacities. This process could be replicated at the regional level through ASEAN.

ASEAN and its member states may consider issuing diaspora bonds, which refer to bonds sold by the home country to its citizens overseas, to finance disaster management projects, particularly those in the phases of emergency response and recovery. Past experiences have shown that diaspora communities are a major source of financing in developing countries. ASEAN member states like the Philippines and Myanmar have large expatriate populations, with the percentage of remittances in their respective GDPs higher than the world average. This represents a vast pool of financial resources for disaster management that can be used to systematically increase the contributions of private remittances and donations to disaster resilience.

Financial technology is another driver of innovation in disaster financing. Crowdfunding — the practice of raising small amounts of money from a large number of people to fund a project or venture — has been considered by some practitioners as a possible addition to the existing financing mechanisms. Compared with the established traditional funding mechanisms, crowdsourcing is fast and timely in flow. Given the fast-growing financial technology industry in the region, ASEAN should consider partnering with such companies to create safe and facilitative platforms for crowdfunding in times of disaster.

While ASEAN is exploring alternative sources of funding, it must prioritise issues around trust, transparency, accountability and effectiveness. These weaknesses can lead to a reluctance to embrace new financing instruments and schemes. As a trusted agent in the region, ASEAN can assume the role of convening, moderating and providing recommendations on disaster-related bonds and crowdfunding projects. Collaboration with reliable international partners can also ensure credibility for disaster financing projects. The World Bank–Philippines catastrophe-linked bonds (CAT Bonds) — a collaboration between the Philippines, Singapore and the World Bank — highlights how ASEAN member states can jointly find market-based solutions with the support of international development partners.

With the financial stresses that COVID-19 is causing in the disaster management sector unlikely to ease soon, ASEAN must ensure its financing avenues are secure. ASEAN should use the opportunities that have opened up during this time through avenues such as advances in technology or the private sector, rather than rely solely on the traditional sources of funding. Only then can the regional grouping increase its financial sustainability. This will improve the overall resilience of its disaster management ecosystem in the long term.

Lina Gong is a Research Fellow in the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

S Nanthini is a Senior Analyst in the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

Humanitarian Diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific: Part I

by Alistair D. B. Cook and Lina Gong
Published on 20 September 2021

Journal Articles
The international humanitarian system is an important site of global governance with efforts by many different actors to respond to the severe humanitarian challenges the world faces. These actors generate political will and commitment to cooperate, as well as construct norms and practices in the conduct of humanitarian action. These umbrella terms are collectively known as humanitarian diplomacy. The most recent high-profile example of humanitarian diplomacy was on display at the World Humanitarian Summit convened in 2016. The event brought participants from around the globe representing different countries and other actors in the humanitarian space, which culminated in An Agenda for Humanity that provided direction for reform of the global humanitarian system that is under strain with the increasingly complex humanitarian situations facing humanity today. Given the ramifications of humanitarian challenges for global governance, the complex dynamics unfolding in the humanitarian system, and the utility of humanitarian action for national foreign policy, humanitarian diplomacy deserves scholarly attention. The research on humanitarian diplomacy sits at the intersection of the literature on global governance, humanitarian affairs, and foreign policy studies. Despite the long history of international humanitarian action, however, the concept of humanitarian diplomacy is relatively new and remains contested. The literature on humanitarian diplomacy remains limited, demonstrating its recent appearance in global affairs. This special issue contributes to the conceptual development of humanitarian diplomacy by providing perspectives from the Asia-Pacific region, which has been a site of humanitarian diplomacy and home to important actors in the international humanitarian system.
The Future is Now: Artificial Intelligence and Anticipatory Humanitarian Action

by Christopher Chen
Published on 19 August 2021


As the world faces simultaneous disasters and burgeoning risks, humanitarian actors need to develop more efficient ways of delivering aid to vulnerable populations. One current trend involves the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) to process large amounts of data quickly to inform – and even autonomously undertake – decision-making processes. While these processes have the potential to facilitate faster and better anticipatory humanitarian action, they can pose unforeseen challenges if left unregulated and unchecked.

In this post, Christopher Chen, Associate Research Fellow at the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies, explores the promise and perils of using artificial intelligence and machine learning in the context of anticipatory humanitarian action. Building on insights gleaned from a data governance and protection workshop co-hosted by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the ICRC, he highlights some of the implications of the use of new technologies in humanitarian action and how the principle of ‘do no harm’ can be applied in a digital age.

Speaking on the need for a more proactive humanitarian system, Sir Mark Lowcock, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, stated in 2019 that ‘[t]he best way to [address gaps] is to change our current system from one that reacts, to one that anticipates’.

Heeding this call, aid workers and organizations have been trying to use new and emerging technologies to facilitate earlier, faster, and potentially more effective humanitarian action. Part of this technological shift involves the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning to improve the efficiency of humanitarian responses and field operations.

However, such a promise is also accompanied by potential pitfalls. Inadequate data governance and data protection might cause unintended harm to vulnerable populations, while poor artificial intelligence and machine learning implementation can exacerbate and intensify existing bias and inequalities. As such, these risks and challenges must be identified and mitigated to ensure that the use of new technology does no harm and protects the life and dignity of those it is intended to serve.

Future-Proofing the Aid Sector?

Embracing innovation is part and parcel of future-proofing the humanitarian sector. Future-proofing refers to the process of anticipating future shocks and stresses and developing methods to minimize their adverse effects. AI/ML-based interventions contribute to this by automating and positively impacting various aspects of humanitarian work.

The ICRC defines Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems as ‘computer programs that carry out tasks – often associated with human intelligence – that require cognition, planning, reasoning or learning’. It also defines Machine Learning (ML) systems as ‘AI systems that are “trained” on and “learn” from data, which ultimately define the way they function’. An example of this is IBM’s ML system that analyzes drivers of migration and uses the data to forecast cross-border movements and refugee flows. As a UN OCHA report states, these systems can facilitate analysis and interpretation of large and complex humanitarian datasets to improve projections and decision-making in humanitarian settings.

AI may be harnessed to improve workflows and optimize the disbursement of aid. For example, in July 2020, predictive analytics frameworks implemented by the UN and other partner organizations forecasted severe flooding along the Jamuna River in Bangladesh. In response, UN OCHA’s Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) allocated and released funding – roughly $5.2 million – to several humanitarian agencies, which enabled them to provide humanitarian assistance to vulnerable populations before flooding reached critical levels. This was CERF’s fastest-ever disbursement of funds in a crisis.

This illustrates how developments in AI/ML and predictive analytics make it possible to anticipate when disasters are about to strike. This facilitates a more proactive, anticipatory approach to humanitarian action and enables humanitarians to deliver more timely assistance to populations.

Caveat Emptor: Risks to Vulnerable Populations

While aid agencies might benefit from the use of AI/ML, these technologies can inadvertently bring risks to vulnerable populations. Without the right safeguards, AI/ML could exacerbate inequalities and further marginalize vulnerable groups.

Consider the scenario where AI/ML processes are used to identify suitable target populations for a particular humanitarian programme. What happens if the algorithm, for some reason, decides that certain people – who would usually be entitled to participate in the programme – should be excluded? Learned bias in AI/ML can lead to the further discrimination of vulnerable populations. This is far from a hypothetical, as over the past few years, there have been many high-profile cases of ML systems demonstrating racial and gender biases. A study in 2019 found that face recognition technologies across 189 algorithms are least accurate on women of colour. It is easy to see how this can be problematic in a humanitarian setting, where vulnerable populations might be subjected to such biases and their corresponding effects, that is, discriminatory disbursement of aid and false positives in the identification of missing people.

AI also needs substantial amounts of quality data to be trained effectively. However, humanitarians often work in places where accurate data on populations are inaccessible. Political contexts might also prevent the collection of sensitive datasets. This makes the training of AI/ML processes particularly difficult. Without access to quality data sets, AI/ML systems cannot be trained and used in a way that avoids amplifying the risks identified above.

These challenges underscore the importance of users having a healthy skepticism when they engage with AI/ML processes. The reality is that it is difficult to code for values; fairness and justice cannot be automated.

Ghosts in the Machine

We live in an age of rapid technological progress. While technologies like AI/ML can make humanitarian work better and more effective, they might also unexpectedly evolve past its original intended purposes, thus threatening the very populations that humanitarians are trying to protect. As such, humanitarians need to realistically assess the capabilities and limitations of AI/ML.

The implementation of AI/ML projects in humanitarian settings should be carried out equitably; partnerships and programmes should not be decided solely by stakeholders from Geneva and New York. This requires active engagement with practitioners on the ground and recipients of aid to identify capacity and systemic gaps. Humanitarian organizations using AI/ML in their work must build feedback loops into their processes for monitoring and evaluation purposes.

At a recent workshop hosted by the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the International Committee of the Red Cross, discussions centred around the opportunities and risks of using new technologies in humanitarian action, as well as the importance of data governance protocols. In the Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning breakout group, participants acknowledged the need for humanitarians to adopt a human-centric approach when using AI and ML.

Especially in situations involving vulnerable and at-risk populations, human control and judgement in applications of AI/ML should be prioritized. AI and ML systems should only be used to augment analytical processes; it should not replace the human element involved in decision-making. This will help to preserve a level of ethical accountability and ensure that digital transformation in the sector takes place in a fair and ethical manner.

The most important takeaway is that, while guidelines or legislative frameworks are important elements of an ethical and safe AI/ML ecosystem, they need to be underpinned by a human-centred approach.

Moving Beyond the Politics of Recognition in Myanmar

by Alistair D. B. Cook and Mely Caballero-Anthony
Published on 17 August 2021


Since the 1 February coup, Myanmar’s military government is attempting to gain international recognition and legitimacy while the country’s people continue to oppose it. The international community has emphasised the need for a peaceful resolution. Against the backdrop of this political impasse, the politics of recognition is taking centre stage — but is this helping anybody?

Migrants protesting against the military junta in Myanmar hold pictures of leader Aung San Suu Kyi, during a candlelight vigil at a Buddhist temple in Bangkok, Thailand, 28 March 2021 (Photo: Reuters/Jorge Silva/File Photo).

The contentious situation is challenging governments if and how they should engage with Myanmar’s military regime. The international community represented by member states at the United Nations appears unable to arrive at an effective consensus towards the turmoil in Myanmar. As states navigate diplomacy and realpolitik, their engagements with Myanmar are coming under increasing scrutiny.

The impasse is drawing attention to any diplomatic signs of movement in the international community towards Myanmar, such as Myanmar’s relationship with the United Kingdom, China’s position and the composition of Myanmar’s participation in April’s ASEAN Leaders’ Meeting. It boils down to the politics of recognition and who can speak on behalf of whom.

In the realm of diplomacy, nuance matters. There is a diplomatic practice that countries recognise states, not governments. This practice provides countries flexibility in their diplomatic engagements, particularly when dealing with a state whose military has taken control of government and is deemed illegitimate by its own people and the international community.

It is over this point that the diplomatic world and the public are diverging. Many people see any recognition of a military appointee as affording the military with recognition to run the country at the expense of its democratically elected government.

Back in April, ASEAN faced this challenge over whether the presence of a military representative at the ASEAN Leaders’ Meeting would constitute the regional body officially recognising the military as the government of Myanmar. At the meeting, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing attended in his position as Commander-in-Chief but was not afforded official recognition as Head of Government.

While this diplomatic ambiguity allowed ASEAN to initially agree on a regional approach to help address the Myanmar crisis, it is yet to break the impasse towards a peaceful settlement. The only agreement that the five permanent members of the UN Security Council have reached through public statements is that the international response to the situation in Myanmar should be led by ASEAN.

Six months after the coup, over 900 people have been killed and over 5300 arrested, charged or sentenced by the military. COVID-19 is rampant, and many are going without the medical attention they need. Some vaccines and medical equipment are supplied by China, the European Union, Singapore and Japan, but not nearly enough for those most in need. Food prices are also rising and the devastating impact of insufficient access to necessities is taking hold.

As Myanmar faces the grim consequences of dual political and pandemic crises, more questions will be raised about the ability of the international community to help people who are suffering. Pressure will continue to mount on ASEAN to act and see through the implementation of its Five-Point Consensus.

So it will be for other countries like the United Kingdom that have been at the forefront in opposing the military regime. China has supplied two million vaccines to Myanmar and 10,000 to the Kachin Independence Army-controlled areas as well as the Wa autonomous region on its border. China has interests and levers to influence the military in Myanmar and concurrently engages with ethnic army-controlled areas as local authorities. How these countries will calibrate their diplomatic engagement with the military regime in Myanmar while attempting to alleviate the worsening humanitarian situation remains to be seen.

Given the efforts initiated by ASEAN to break the impasse in Myanmar, the international community should work with the regional body to fulfil the Five-Point Consensus to support those most in need. The focus needs to be people-centred to engage entities that can deliver assistance directly. This means engaging established networks with access to affected people like China has done in its vaccine distribution. The international community can use trusted partners like the Red Cross Movement, relevant UN agencies and local partners. ASEAN has the potential to provide a platform for engagement to facilitate access to support these efforts.

ASEAN is supported by the international community to facilitate engagement with all parties including the military, the National Unity Government, the Civil Disobedience Movement and ethnic armed groups de facto recognised in the Five-Point Consensus. The Five-Point Consensus provides the framework for action — it is time now for ASEAN to provide a supportive ecosystem to move from words to actions.

While the people of Myanmar remain resilient in the face of adversity, their neighbours and the rest of the international community must focus on helping them deal with the crisis beyond the politics of recognition. While the world of diplomacy is defined largely by the nuanced positions states take for national interest, actors must balance this ambiguity with the need to invest in a more substantive and consistent agenda to find a political resolution and support the people in Myanmar.

Alistair DB Cook is Coordinator of the Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Programme and Senior Fellow at the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies, S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

Mely Caballero-Anthony is Professor, President’s Chair in International Relations and Security Studies and Head of the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

The Rise of China and India’s Remote Humanitarian Aid

by Lina Gong
Published on 29 July 2021


The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many disruptions to humanitarian action since 2020. As traditional donors struggled with domestic COVID-19 responses, emerging donors such as China and India seized the opportunity to increase their humanitarian footprint. Both countries provided humanitarian aid to over 150 countries and international organisations in 2020, with online technical support as one important avenue of their aid activities. Their move to online aid delivery conforms with a general trend in the humanitarian sector towards the greater use of remote humanitarian programming.

A logistics worker unloads a package containing vials of the Chinese produced CoronaVac COVID-19 vaccine, 8 July 2021 (Photo by Camilo Freedman / SOPA Images/Sipa USA via Reuters)


One of the main motivations behind the shift to remote programming is the need to reduce heightened security risks in a world with shrinking humanitarian access. Remote humanitarian programming facilitates connections between international and local humanitarian organisations, which enables foreign humanitarian actors to connect to those in need without being physically present. This modality is not new in the humanitarian sector. In the 1990s, international humanitarian actors withdrew from fragile countries, such as Somalia, and relied on remote programming to provide aid to those in need.

In recent years, the safety and security of humanitarian staff have become increasingly compromised. In 2019 alone, 483 humanitarians were killed, wounded or kidnapped — the highest number on record. International humanitarian agencies were forced to relocate their staff away from high-risk environments and deliver assistance through national and local partners. But the relocation of international staff raises the concern that local humanitarian workers are left to bear the risks, which has led to calls for better protection for local humanitarian agencies.

COVID-19 has significantly disrupted humanitarian action. Infection risks and travel restrictions have curtailed aid deployments. A reduction in air and sea freight, low handling capacity at ports and longer customs clearance times have disrupted international humanitarian supply chains. These restrictions have forced international humanitarian agencies to rely on national and local organisations to reach affected communities.

Technological advancement is facilitating the development of remote programming. Platforms such as Zoom, MS Teams and Blue Jeans improve communication and coordination between partners at local, national and international levels. Geographic information system data can be used to plan COVID-19 vaccine distributions, while drones are being deployed to deliver vaccines. Artificial intelligence and data analytics enable virtual collaboration, such as crowdsourcing and crowdfunding. Digital payment is being used in cash programming.

But local humanitarianism comes with its own risks. It remains unclear what qualifies as ‘local’, how much capacity local actors have and whether donors can trust local humanitarian organisations to manage their funds. There is a funding imbalance between international and local humanitarian organisations, as many donors still prefer the former. But the pandemic has forced the sector to transform — today, partnering with local actors is the only game in town.

Remote arrangements can take different forms — such as remote control, delegation, support and partnerships. To truly facilitate localisation, local humanitarian organisations must be engaged as partners during the decision-making and planning stages of remote programming, rather than just implementing the projects. There also needs to be more emphasis placed on capacity building to strengthen aid governance at the local level to ensure progress made during the pandemic remains on course.

COVID-19 has compounded pre-existing humanitarian needs and caused new emergencies. The United Nations appealed for US$10.3 billion for the Global Humanitarian Response Plan for COVID-19 for the period April–December 2020. To fill the gaps, it has become important for the humanitarian sector to explore new sources of funding and resources, such as emerging donors.

China continues to emerge as an aid donor, most noticeably through its aid activities alongside the development of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI cuts through several Asian and African countries vulnerable to natural hazards and internal conflicts.

India has likewise been recognised as an emerging donor through its humanitarian assistance to countries in South Asia prone to natural hazards. Since the global outbreak of COVID-19, both China and India have launched diplomatic offensives by offering massive humanitarian assistance to countries and international organisations. An important part of this aid was video-conferencing and online training for health workers from aid-recipient countries.

While their respective humanitarian spending remains modest compared to traditional donors, China and India have material capabilities, experience in responding to natural hazards and public health emergencies, and political influence in the developing world. This has been the basis of their expanding humanitarian involvement. Yet both countries generally provide their support through national governments and international agencies. Their official aid systems still rely on direct financial assistance due to the limited capacity their domestic NGOs have to carry out overseas operations.

Remote humanitarian programming is providing a bridge for China and India to expand their humanitarian involvement overseas without needing to develop domestic humanitarian organisations. Both countries need to ensure that the design and implementation of these remote humanitarian programs include robust measures to monitor, evaluate and provide quality control. Governance is still a weak link in their aid programs and needs to be addressed if they want to become key players in the international humanitarian system.

Lina Gong is a Research Fellow in the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

Should the UK recognise a new Myanmar Diplomat Appointed by the Junta?

by Alistair D. B. Cook and Mely Caballero-Anthony
Published on 29 July 2021


The impasse over the Myanmar coup has thrown up new challenges for countries seeking to navigating the politics of recognition, say Alistair D B Cook and Mely Caballero-Anthony.

FILE PHOTO: Myanmar's ambassador Kyaw Zwar Minn outside the Myanmar Embassy in London
Myanmar’s ambassador Kyaw Zwar Minn gestures outside the Myanmar Embassy, after he was locked out of the embassy in London, Britain, April 8, 2021. (File photo: REUTERS/Toby Melville)


SINGAPORE: The UK Government announced the appointment of its new Ambassador to Myanmar international aid practitioner Pete Vowles last Friday (Jul 23).

It also issued a statement the same day acknowledging receipt of a notification that a new Charge d’Affaires has been appointed by Myanmar to lead its UK embassy.

This followed developments in April which saw then Myanmar Ambassador to the UK, Kyaw Zwar Minn, locked out of Myanmar’s UK embassy by his staff.

Since then, there has been speculation over whether the UK government would recognise a new military-appointed Myanmar Ambassador, and if it did, whether such an act could confer legitimacy on the State Administration Council as the Government of Myanmar.

What then would this mean for the National Unity Government, formed by elected lawmakers ousted in the February coup?


Although the military have made several attempts to gain international recognition of its State Administration Council, domestically, they have experienced huge resistance.

Anti-junta demonstrations and protests have persisted, most recently on Martyrs’ Day on Jul 19 to oppose the military takeover of government.

The international community’s passive position that a peaceful resolution of the situation is needed remains unchanged. Perhaps this is why it has had little success in making progress on the issue.

Myanmar Protesters holding National League for Democracy (NLD) flags raise three-finger salutes during flash protests against the military coup at Bahan township in Yangon, Myanmar on Jun 25, 2021. (AP Photo)

The United Nations has been unable to arrive at a consensus towards the turmoil in Myanmar. The only agreement that the UN Security Council Permanent Five members have reached through public statements is that the international response to the situation in Myanmar should support the ASEAN led process.

Even US Secretary of State Antony Blinken who expressed deep concern about the situation in Myanmar simply urged ASEAN to take action to end the violence and restore democracy in the country in a video conference with his ASEAN counterparts in mid-July.

These contending positions have not only led to an impasse but also presented fresh challenges to how governments should deal with the military regime under the present circumstances.

As states navigate the world of diplomacy and realpolitiktheir engagements with Myanmar will inadvertently come under huge scrutiny.

The impasse in Myanmar has heightened sensitivity to any signs of movement in the international community’s posture towards Myanmar.

This is the reason why there is a focus at present on the relationship between Myanmar and the UK, and a few months ago on the composition of Myanmar’s participation in the ASEAN Leader’s Meeting in April.

It boils down to the politics of recognition, perceptions, and who can speak on behalf of whom and to what end – as well as whether such actions could shift the goalposts on the situation to the detriment of the Myanmar people.


In the realm of diplomacy, nuance matters.  There is the diplomatic practice, however, that countries recognise states not governments.

This provides countries flexibility in their diplomatic engagements, particularly when dealing with a state whose military has taken control and is deemed illegitimate by its own people and in the eyes of the international community.

It is over this point that the diplomatic world and the public have diverged. Many people see any external recognition of a diplomatic appointee as affording the military with legitimacy to run the country at the expense of its democratically elected government.

Erywan Pehin Yusof, Brunei's second minister for foreign affairs and ASEAN Secretary-General
Myanmar’s Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of the Myanmar armed forces. (Photo: AFP/YE AUNG THU)


This contrasts with diplomatic law as enshrined in the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations that ambassadors need their credentials recognised by the host country but that diplomatic ranks lower than that of Ambassador do not. Myanmar’s appointment of a new Charge d’Affairs to the UK is technically a matter of process not politics.

This legal differentiation may come to pass and see the newly military-appointed Ambassador take the post of Charge d’ Affaires ad interim in the UK, bypassing the need for formal UK government approval.

But he still needs to get a UK travel visa as he is presently in Myanmar. This is not as straight-forward as it used to be pre-coronavirus. Myanmar is on the COVID-19 Red List which only allows entry to British, Irish nationals or travellers who have residency rights in the UK.

So the military-appointee will still require UK government authorisation for a visa that allows him to take up his diplomatic post as Charge d’ Affaires in London.

Against the international opprobrium on the military regime in Myanmar, how the UK Government navigates its position can be a source of contention.

Would a position recognising the Charge d’Affairs in any form be consistent with the official UK position opposing the military takeover of government in Myanmar or wash with the UK public? How does this diplomatic ambiguity inform the diplomatic engagements by other countries on Myanmar?


Back in April, ASEAN faced a similar challenge over whether the presence of a military representative at the ASEAN Leaders’ Meeting constitutes recognition of the Myanmar military as the Government of Myanmar.

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing eventually attended in his position as Commander-in-Chief and was not afforded official recognition as Head of Government. This recognised the de facto control the military has over major entry points and government buildings but falls short of de jure recognition as the internationally recognised Government of Myanmar.

While this diplomatic ambiguity has allowed ASEAN to initially agree on a regional approach to help address the Myanmar crisis, this approach has yet to break the impasse.

It is now three months since the ASEAN Leaders Meeting was held in person at the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta and there is still no answer from the ASEAN Chair, Brunei Darussalam, on the proposed appointment of a Special Envoy to Myanmar for the regional bloc as part of the agreed Five-Point Consensus.

Nearly six months after the military coup in Myanmar, over 900 people have been killed and over 5,300 arrested, charged or sentenced by the military. COVID-19 is rampant in Myanmar, and many are going without the medical attention they need.

Some vaccines and medical equipment are en route from China, the EU and Japan, but not nearly enough or quick enough to those most in need. Food prices are rising and people are suffering from the devastating impact of insufficient access to necessities since martial law was imposed.


As Myanmar faces the grim consequences of dual crises of a military coup and the COVID-19 pandemic, more questions will be raised over the international community’s ability to respond and help the people in Myanmar.

The pressures will continue to mount on ASEAN to act on the implementation of its Five-Point consensus. So will it be for other countries like the UK that have been at the forefront in opposing the military regime in Myanmar.

How these countries will calibrate their diplomatic engagement with the regime in Myanmar while responding to the worsening humanitarian situation in the country remains to be seen.

While the people in Myanmar remain resilient in the face of this adversity, they would certainly hope that their neighbours and the rest of the international community will not reduce their interest to focus on the politics of recognition at their expense.

While the world of diplomacy is defined largely by nuanced positions states take for national interests, balancing this ambiguity against the urgent need to invest in a more substantive and consistent agenda to find a political resolution and support the people in Myanmar is urgently needed.

Dr Alistair D B Cook is Coordinator of the Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Programme and Senior Fellow at the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies, S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

Professor Mely Caballero-Anthony is President’s Chair in International Relations and Security Studies and Head of Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies, at the same school.

Source: CNA/sl

Humanitarian Diplomacy as an Instrument for China’s Image-Building

by Lina Gong
Published on 18 June 2021

Journal Articles

Image-building has been an important goal of China’s foreign policy. Humanitarian diplomacy provides a useful instrument to build a benign international image, given the altruistic nature of humanitarian action. China’s humanitarian diplomacy has undergone changes in recent years, such as substantial increases in humanitarian spending, institutional reforms and the emergence of Chinese non-state actors. The existing literature on China’s humanitarian activities is scant due to the country’s limited engagement in global humanitarian action previously. This article aims to contribute to the scholarship by examining China’s humanitarian activities in Southeast Asia during the COVID-19 pandemic through the lens of image-building. Specifically, it answers the questions of how China uses humanitarian action to improve its international image and how effective such efforts have been. This article finds that the outcome of China’s image-building through humanitarian activities is influenced by the severity of the crisis, the national response of the country affected and the perceived legitimacy of China’s action. It concludes that China’s humanitarian diplomacy has achieved mixed outcomes in Southeast Asia. While China has been recognized as a major provider of help during the pandemic, its assistance has not substantially improved its image in the region.

Humanitarian Diplomacy in ASEAN

by Alistair D. B. Cook
Published on 4 June 2021

Journal Articles

Progress on regional cooperation in Southeast Asia is often punctuated by decades rather than years. The exposure of the wider Asia-Pacific to natural hazards renders it the world’s most disaster prone. Since the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami in 2004, there have been three significant broad trends that have shaped humanitarian diplomacy, namely ASEAN as a platform for engagement, sectoral approaches and a diversifying multi-stakeholder environment creating a multi-level regionalism in Southeast Asia. States and societies in Southeast Asia have demonstrated a commitment to building humanitarian capacity which is often termed ‘nationally led, regionally supported and international as necessary’ so that they can lead response to natural hazards. The experience of natural hazards offers an important reference for humanitarian work in other areas, notably health emergencies and conflict settings. However, the localization of the global humanitarian system beyond the regional and national levels to local communities remains far from certain, and progress made in this arena may yet come undone without sustained and substantive political commitment from ASEAN member states.