What did Kofi Annan mean to Southeast Asia?
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What did Kofi Annan mean to Southeast Asia?

KOFI ANNAN meant different things to different people. In his ten years as UN secretary-general, and in his work that followed, Annan left his mark on all corners of the world through his policies and passion for peace.

While he admitted to some deep regrets in his long career – namely his slow response to the Rwandan genocide – he also had many significant successes.

Ghana-born, the 80-year-old diplomat never forgot his love and commitment to the continent he called home, focusing much of his post-UN efforts on developing African nations. But he also worked in a leading capacity on international humanitarian endeavours that impacted millions in Asia.

Following his death on Saturday, we look back at the influence he had in Southeast Asia and the lasting – and not so lasting – impacts he had on the region.

Rohingya intervention

Annan’s most recent intervention in Southeast Asia was through his role as head of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, tasked with drawing up proposals for how Burma (Myanmar) could foster reconciliation between different communities living in the restive region.

The final 63-page report produced detailed how the Rohingya community was vulnerable to human rights abuses due to a protracted conflict, statelessness and discrimination. It called for basic services, citizenship rights, security and the closure of refugee camps for the minority but was promptly dismissed by Burma’s military who said it contained “factual errors and unfair attitudes.”

Just hours after Annan presented his final findings, violence broke out in the state when armed insurgents attacked security guards. This proved to be the spark that lit the blaze and within months, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya were forced to flee a brutal military crackdown that rights groups say amounted to ethnic cleansing.

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Former UN secretary general Kofi Annan (L) and Myanmar State Counsellor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi (R) confer during a meeting in Yangon on September 5, 2016, to find lasting solution to Myanmar’s stateless Rohingya. Source: Romeo Gacad/AFP

In a speech following the attacks, Annan appealed to all parties to abstain from violence. “I strongly urge all communities and groups to reject violence. After years of insecurity and instability, it should be clear that violence is not the solution to the challenges facing Rakhine state.”

Sadly, his call was not heeded and those more than 700,000 Rohingya who fled the violence, still reside in neighbouring Bangladesh, fearing a return to their homeland.

East Timor Independence

After being on the international agenda for decades, Annan finally got the negotiating process going in 1997 that would eventually lead to East Timor declaring independence.

The country had for generations been administered as a colony of Portugal, but was taken over by Indonesia in the 70s when military forces intervened.

Beginning in 1982, successive Secretaries-General had held regular talks with Indonesia and Portugal aimed at resolving the status of the territory, but all came to naught.

It was only under Annan’s watch that, in June 1998, Indonesia proposed a limited autonomy for East Timor within Indonesia. In light of this proposal, the talks made rapid progress and resulted in a set of agreements between Indonesia and Portugal, signed in 1999.

The two governments entrusted Annan with organising and conducting a “popular consultation” in order to ascertain whether the people of East Timor accepted or rejected a special autonomy while still being part of the Republic of Indonesia.

Some 98 percent of registered East Timorese voters went to the polls deciding by a margin of 21 percent to 79 percent to reject the proposed autonomy and begin a process of transition towards independence.

By 2002, with independence agreed and a new government elected, Annan took to a makeshift stage in a field on the outskirts of the capital Dili to hand over the reins of power to President Xanana Gusmao.

The Global Fund

Towards the end of the 1990s, increased awareness of the destructive potential of epidemics such as HIV/AIDS pushed public health issues to the top of the global development agenda.

In 2001, Annan issued a five-point “Call to Action” to address the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Stating it was a “personal priority,” Annan proposed the establishment of a global AIDS and health fund, “dedicated to the battle against HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases.”

A year later, his vision became reality when The Global Fund was established by the UN General Assembly.

Since then, the region has seen a dramatic drop in the incidence of HIV/AIDS, in part due to the help of Annan’s brainchild.

Cambodia and Thailand cut their infection rate by almost half between 2010 and 2016, while Malaysia and Vietnam also saw a significant drop of around 30 percent. Infections in Indonesia and Burma also fell over that time.

Only the Philippines saw an increase in infections. But the Global Fund is working to stop the spread of the disease in the country through expanded outreach and case finding, testing, condoms distribution, and funding programmes that remove human rights barriers to accessing HIV services.

The Fund has so far invested US$52 million in fighting the virus in the Philippines and 17,000 people are now antiretroviral therapy thanks to their work.