Myanmar and China: Responses Contrast


By horrific coincidence, an almost apocalyptic series of natural disasters has occurred in recent weeks. A devastating cyclone struck Myanmar that killed at least 78,000 people and left 56,000 more missing. This was followed by the cataclysmic earthquake in China that killed at least 50,000 people, caused countless injuries and left an estimated five million people without adequate shelter. What was even more astounding than the scope of the disasters themselves was the sharply contrasting manner in which the governments in China and Myanmar responded to the tragedies.

In China, government first responders, the People’s Army and thousands of ordinary citizens joined international rescue and recovery teams to deal effectively with all aspects of the tragedy. Food, water and sturdy shelters were provided to as many victims as possible as soon as possible. International media were given unusual access to the covering of the event, and in contrast to the inept manner in which China has handled previous earthquakes or the Sars epidemic in the past, the rescue efforts this time could accurately be called heroic. The bottom line is that China at all levels responded quickly and powerfully to deal with the tragic aftermath of the earthquake, and has welcomed support from the United States and other nations, along with volunteer relief workers, the International Red Cross and non-governmental organizations.

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The military junta, led by Senior General Than Shwe, which rules Myanmar, formerly called Burma, with an iron fist, has behaved with harsh indifference to the suffering of the nation’s citizens. For days after the cyclone, the junta refused to allow any aid to come into Myanmar at all, leaving hundreds of thousands of people to deal with lack of food, clothing and shelter. Malnutrition, malaria and other life-threatening diseases broke out among the victims. The United States and the nations of the European Union were at first repeatedly rebuffed in their attempts to persuade the dictatorial clique in Rangoon to allow relief supplies to come in. When the junta leaders finally agreed to admit a limited number of airlifts, there were reliable reports that the tons of food were being hoarded by the junta, deliveries to victims were delayed, and even that spoiled food was being shipped to the few villages that got relief. The junta even set up fake “show camps” that looked clean and well-run, recalling what the Nazis attempted to do by setting up Theresienstadt (Terezin) as a “show camp” to dupe the International Red Cross into believing that the Jews there were receiving humane treatment.

And where has the United Nations been all this time? UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon told an interviewer on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, that he had telephoned Burmese Senior Gen. Than Shwe, the leader of the junta, but that he did not take either of the two calls. Ban said he had then “sent a letter” to the junta leader, and that he “understood that he had read it.” Two unanswered phone calls and a letter were hardly effective responses to a tragedy of this scope. Ban finally traveled to Myanmar and was making limited progress in talks with junta leaders about letting relief supplies and workers come into Burma without interference.

A French representative said that the European Union should be prepared to use force if necessary to make sure that the humanitarian aid gets to the Myanmar cyclone victims. As of last week, a French Navy ship is anchored offshore, with enough food to feed 100,000 people for 15 days and shelters for 15,000.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was spot on when he told the BBC last weekend that the Myanmar natural disaster “is becoming made into a man-made catastrophe by the negligence, the neglect and the inhuman treatment of the Burmese people by a regime that is failing to act and to allow the international community to do what it wants to do.”

We urge our readers to praise the United States government for its relief efforts, and to insist that our representative on the UN Security Council take immediate and effective action to put the junta in Burma on notice: either allow the international community to do what it wants to do to rescue and help the victims and survivors, or face the most severe consequences for failing to do so, including all necessary options to rescue those in such dire need who are being neglected by their so-called “leaders.”