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Lessons from calamity

By James Norman - posted Wednesday, 21 May 2008

The fallout from the two tragedies that have hit Burma and China are only now starting to be fully grasped by the international community. From Australia's perspective, there are telling lessons to be learnt from these calamities by the relative responses of the two ruling parties.

Here in Bangkok, perhaps because Thailand borders Burma, there is great solidarity with the Burmese people as they grapple with the impacts of cyclone Nargis - mixed with outrage at the inhumanity of the ruling Burmese Military Junta.

Thai Aid workers, along with other international relief teams, have been stuck at the border to Burma awaiting approval from Burmese generals to bring aid to the Burmese people. I attended a cultural event here in Bangkok on the weekend in which all proceeds were to be directed to the Burmese people.


The question the international community is grappling with now is whether or not the situation in Burma, in which up to 70,000 have officially been killed, calls for humanitarian intervention against the directive of the governing Burmese Junta in the form of military air drops of food and medical supplies.

While there are signs this week that Burma's leaders may be softening their refusal to allow foreign aid workers into the country, given that more than two weeks have passed since Cyclone Nargis struck, it may be a case of too little too late for many Burmese.

British charity “Save the Children” said this week that some 30,000 acutely malnourished children under five years of age in Burma are now threatened by death from starvation. One wonders how many of these children would have been spared this fate if not for the awful directives of the Burmese Junta to halt aid workers in their lifesaving efforts.

In the case of China, despite a patchy history when it comes to human rights and the obvious desire of the Chinese government to improve its international standing in the lead up to the Olympics - it has to be said that the two responses to these tragedies couldn't paint a clearer picture of the differences between the Chinese and Burmese ruling parties.

The Chinese government has responded admirably to the earthquakes that struck last week and have killed anywhere between 30,000 and 50,000 people.

They have welcomed international aid and not attempted to hide or distort the news coverage. All stops have been pulled to help the victims of the earthquake, to rescue those trapped under the rubble and assist the estimated 220,000 people who were injured.


Despite remaining misgivings about China's brutal past and ongoing mistreatment of Tibet, over the past week China has proven itself to be deserving of praise and support in its handling of this recent tragedy.

This week, as the chances of finding more surviving victims under the rubble fade, China has begun three days of mourning for the earthquake victims in which all entertainment will cease, the torch relay will be delayed and flags will fly at half mast. China is showing the way when it comes to responding to calamity on this scale.

In contrast, the Burmese Junta is now being accused of committing crimes against humanity by failing to allow international aid into the country.

International observers, including British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, have described the Junta's response as “inhuman” as it has effectively added a manmade catastrophe on top of a natural one. It is a shame that it takes disaster on this scale to wake the world up to the reality of oppressive regimes in our own region.

In the short term, given Australia's position within the Asia Pacific region, we have a responsibility to continue to apply pressure on the Burmese Junta to cease in its political interference in allowing aid to reach its people in their hour of need.

In the longer term, while the Chinese government have shown itself to be worthy of international respect, there is certainly a clear indicator that political change is needed in Burma.

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About the Author

James Norman is communications coordinator for the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. He is a contributor to The Age, The Australian and the Herald Sun. He also wrote Bob Brown's biography for Allen & Unwin.

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