A non-partisan journal of the left.

China and Myanmar: Contrasting Government Responses to Natural Disasters

Fri 16th May 2008

The last couple of weeks have seen two huge disasters strike in Asia, one in Myanmar and one in China. Such disasters are unfortunately impossible to prevent, though the reaction to them can determine to a great extent how many people may survive. No matter what form of government any country has, its first duty must always be to protect the people it governs. Much has been said about the woefully inadequate reaction of the Myanmar government in its response to the cyclone aftermath there. Tragically, ten days after this disaster, an even greater tragedy struck Sichuan Province in Southwest China in the form of a 7.8 (according to the Chinese) or 7.9 (according to the US) magnitude earthquake. The response to this tragedy has further highlighted not only the derisory and callous attitude of the government of Myanmar towards the cyclone’s aftermath, but their total lack of legitimacy to govern the country.

Many in the West may view the two governments as being rather similar, especially as the recent nemesis of both seems to have been disgruntled monks. Most in the West would place these two nations firmly in the “bad” camp in their minds. However in reality, things are never so black and white. The reaction is so different that it is hard to believe that Cyclone Nargis actually occurred ten days before the earthquake, as the Burmese seem to be so far behind the Chinese in their response even now.

In Myanmar, there are still people who have not been reached, and there are currently roadblocks in place to actively prevent people being reached. Many aid workers have not been allowed beyond the limits of whatever city they are in, if they have been able to get in at all. By contrast the Chinese sent soldiers marching through the night, and dropped in others by air to Pingwu, Mao and Wenchuan when the weather finally permitted it, to reach everyone as soon as humanly possible. Fifty-thousand are now in the area directing operations.

In Myanmar much of the aid was initially refused, the government insisted first that tariffs be paid on it, then that it be handed over to them directly. When planes did finally arrive, the authorities seized them. This prompted a suspension of aid flights, which resumed after that aid was finally released for distribution after further delays, with people dying all the time. The aid now had labels on indicating that it was coming from the ruling generals. In China, the government have accepted help, though it is unclear how much is needed, and logistics are the main problem for getting in aid – local airports can only take in so many flights, and roads have to first be cleared. Some countries can be reluctant to accept help – the United States turned down offers of help from Cuba when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans - but the Chinese have even accepted help from a prominent Taiwanese Buddhist organisation, the Tzu Chi Foundation.

In Myanmar the media has been showing the military and generals hand out the little aid that they have allowed in, in an attmpet to dupe the very people their policies are killing. The authorities expended much energy hunting down CNN reporter Dan Rivers, who had sneaked in to film riverbanks littered with rotting human and animal corpses, still untouched a full week after the cyclone. No effort had been made to remove the bodies or reach the desperate villagers that he came across, but they did find enough time and resources to pursue him, and he was lucky to get out. China’s media is also tightly controlled and is focusing on the government’s positive attempts to alleviate the situation, but they have been showing live, uncensored, around-the-clock rescue efforts and allowed in news organisations from around the world to do the same and report what they like.

The government of Myanmar has continued to export rice to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka from the Thilawa container port, only bothering to distribute to its people the rice there that was spoilt by the storm. It has also informed 2,000 refugees sheltering in a school in Hlaing Tha Yar, near the capital Yangon, that they will soon be evicted as the school is to be a polling station in their sham referendum. The referendum has been delayed in this region due to the cyclone, although the government has already claimed victory, with 92% nationwide approval.

People have talked about how the Burmese need more help than the Chinese as they don’t have the resources to help themselves. The fact is, however, that they haven't even tried to help their own people. They have the second largest army in Southeast Asia, after Vietnam. It has doubled in size since 1989 and is the best funded and equipped organisation in the country. By some estimates it gets a massive 40% of the national budget. It has not been widely deployed to help people, to provide shelter or food, instead being send to guard polling stations for the sham referendum.

The current situation in Myanmar is in fact reminiscent of the 20th century’s deadliest natural disaster, the Tangshan Earthquake in China in 1976. Back then, the Chinese refused any outside help despite being under-equipped, fearing interference as the Cultural Revolution neared its end, and the ultra-radical Gang of Four were more concerned with stopping Deng Xiaoping. Jiang Qing, Mao’s last wife, summed up their attitude when she said “There were merely several hundred thousand deaths. So what? Denouncing Deng Xiaoping concerns 800 million people.”

Fortunately for the Chinese victims of this earthquake, their government has changed somewhat since those days and Carl Maukler, head of Red Cross operations in the area, has praised the reaction and “excellent co-operation” his organisation has received. By contrast Pierre Fouillant, of Comité de Secours Internationaux, has said of the Myanmar government’s response: "It's like they are taking a gun and shooting their own people."
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