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January 02, 2005

Burma and the Tsunami

Political regimes and disaster relief:

The Observer | Comment | Nick Cohen: The politics of disaster: [F]or the first three days, the official version was that Burma had survived without a scratch. The uniformed gangsters who run the kleptocracy, ravish its forests and murder its citizens, expressed their heart-felt sorrow and decent regret at the news from the rest of the region, but made no mention of the waves taking Burmese lives.... In the surreal way of tyrannies, the Burmese dictators were asserting that there had been no loss of life at the precise moment when the rulers of the neighbouring dictatorship of China sent them their public condolences for the loss of life.

On Wednesday the hacks on the New Light of Myanmar, the junta's mouthpiece, admitted that 43 people had died and 25 were missing. Few believed them. Ever since Boxing Day, opponents of the regime who produce the Democratic Voice of Burma website have been receiving leads from scattered sources. An anonymous naval officer told them that a military installation on Coco Island in the Indian Ocean had been washed away. Magye Island in the Gulf of Bengalmay also had been swamped, other sources said. There were reports of the Maubin University building being torn apart, possibly by an earthquake which hit after the waves, of fishermen never returning from the sea and of villages losing dozens of inhabitants. One rumour doing the rounds says that 500 died in one district alone, and it sounds plausible. Like everyone outside the military, the opium barons and the Chinese plutocrats who have bought up much of the country, the inhabitants of the coastal districts are desperately poor. Their flimsy shacks never looked as if they could withstand a raging sea....

Aid agencies need to grease palms and accept stringent restrictions on what they can do or say if they want to work in Burma. They can't be allowed to be independent sources of power which provide for the population and reveal the true nature of its suffering to the outside world. Last week reporters who tried to get information from the Unicef office in Rangoon were given a short course on the facts of life. The aid workers stonewalled because they would be thrown out of the country if they said a word out of place.... Last summer Christian Aid published The Politics of Poverty, a manifesto in the Geldof tradition, which tore into the effects of the war on terror. Parts of it were well-merited complaints about the cutting of aid budgets in South America to pay for reconstruction in Iraq. But the charity couldn't bring itself to admit that systems of government can change everything. To Christian Aid it seemed neither here nor there whether Afghanistan was ruled by an elected president or a theocratic tyranny, all that mattered was that the food got through. To link aid to the struggle against the Taliban was to politicise it. To allow Coalition troops to help deliver food and medicine was a blurring 'of the once distinct line between aid worker and combatant' which put the lives of genuine charity workers at risk.

In practice, Christian Aid knows as well as everyone else that politics is everything. The Disaster Emergency Committee, of which it is a member, said that initial relief efforts will be directed at India and Sri Lanka. Not because they are the worst-hit regions but because they have strong civil societies and well-organised local charities which could make sure that the help got to where it was needed. Indonesia and Burma would have to wait because of 'political problems'. The Indonesia political problem is that the devastated Aceh region is also the site of a dirty war between secessionists and the centre which has been flaring on and off for the last 30 years.... Amartya Sen won the Nobel Prize for his brilliant insight that famines aren't caused by shortages of food. The 30 million who died of starvation in the late 1950s because of Chairman Mao's insane Great Leap Forward towards industrialisation - the greatest single crime of the twentieth century, incidentally, far worse in terms of lives lost than the First World War or the Nazi death camps - died because they had no way of forcing a Marxist tyranny to change course. Similarly, the three million who died in the Bengal famine of 1944 to 1945 didn't starve because food was scarce but because a wartime economic boom had pushed prices beyond the reach of the poor....

Posted by DeLong at January 2, 2005 08:15 AM

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It should also be pointed out that many of the missing people in Thailand are Burmese illegal aliens who are forced by the economic disaster that is Burma to work as fishermen, day laborers etc. in Thailand. I did hear that at least one international NGO is doing a preliminary survey of damage done in southern Burma.

Posted by: aiontay at January 2, 2005 07:31 PM

Wont a lot of this damage be visible by satellite? the vanished naval installations, the university, etc..? the news agencies can check, after all

Posted by: noname at January 2, 2005 08:55 PM

The more things change.... This sad story reminded me about the old book by Marquis de Custine "Russia in 1839", and it's eerie parallels to the Communist dictatorship in Russia, and now to the one in Burma... At one point de Custine tells the story about a natural disaster which was completely silenced by official Russian news sources, and goes on to say: "Any disaster here is considered to be a matter of State - it means that God forgot His duty to the Emperor… The Emperor is not held politically responsible for anything; instead he plays the role of Providence, which is responsible for everything – such is the consequence of a human usurping the power of God."

Posted by: anatol at January 3, 2005 12:35 AM

> The 30 million who died of starvation in the late 1950s because of Chairman Mao's insane Great Leap Forward towards industrialisation - the greatest single crime of the twentieth century,

Has there been any authoritive studies on this?


According to some critics, there are 3 contributing factors to the 30 million deaths

[The China specialists I know say the remainder of this comment has *no* grounding in reality at all.]

a) census sampling methodology errors in 50's which overestimated actual population and consequently the "overcorrection" due to famine;

b) the initial trial collectivisations occured when weather was benign leading to exceptional harvests which subsequently failed catastrophically during drought years;

c) hersay that the Chinese attempted to purchase wheat from the Australians/Canadians who offered unlimited trade credit but US trade pressure pervailed and scuttled the deal;

Whilst Mao was basically a peasant guerilla leader who cultivated a personality cult, it seems hard to believe a pragmatic society like the chinese would not seek to mitigate the central policy excesses. But then this would not be the first time misguided governments made serious errors in judgements (cf Irish Potato Famine)

Posted by: LL at January 3, 2005 05:23 AM

Glad to see somebody has taken notice of the Burmese people's plight. Geographically Burma is in the same if not worse off position as its close neighbour Thailand. While I accept that its beaches were not inhabited by wealthy western tourists when the tsunami struck, I still cannot figure out why the world's media has chosen to brush aside and ignore the plight of Burma's costal people. The fact that the authorities in one of the worst tyrannic dictatorships have tried to cover up the extent of the damage and suffering should cause the world's media to start asking even more probing questions instead of none at all! Less hysteria, less hype (Sky News and cohorts) and a little more pragmatic reporting PLEASE!!!!!

Posted by: Kieran at January 6, 2005 12:02 PM