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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

China and Burma: a seismic shift

May 15, 2008

China responds to disaster with compassion; Burma remains criminally negligent
The Times (UK)
May 14, 2008

Two terrible natural disasters have affected two neighbouring
countries within eight days. In Burma, the cyclone that left up to
100,000 people dead or injured now threatens the lives of thousands
more people because of the criminal refusal by the junta to accept
and deliver urgently needed foreign aid. In China, the worst
earthquake for more than 30 years is known to have killed at least
12,000 people but has probably taken the lives of three or four times
that number in Wenchuan alone, the epicentre that remains cut off
from the world. China's leaders, however, have reacted with exemplary
speed and concern, mobilising a massive national effort to rescue
survivors and prevent the outbreak of disease. The contrast could not
be more poignant.

For China, where old habits of secrecy still linger, the new openness
and concern are heartening. Wen Jiabao, the Prime Minister, flew
immediately to the disaster area, voiced national grief and sympathy,
visited survivors and repeated his call for even faster efforts to
reach those trapped under buildings or buried in the rubble. More
than 50,000 troops have been mobilised to aid the emergency teams and
distribute food. Helicopters have been put on standby to drop
medicines and provisions. Nearby airports have been closed to
civilian traffic to aid the emergency effort. Priority has been given
to restoring electricity and clearing roads. An appeal has gone out
for blood and television provides frequent bulletins.

Things have come a long way since the 1976 earthquake that destroyed
the city of of Tangshan, northeast of Beijing, taking an official
toll of 240,000 lives. At the time, emergency teams were wholly
unprepared. Details of the 8.3 magnitude quake were suppressed for as
long as possible. No foreign relief teams were admitted in. And most
of China was gripped by rumours and talk of omens - to the point
where the collapse of the Gang of Four was attributed to the disaster.

The Chinese response this time is sharper and more mature. Beijing
has voiced thanks for the world's sympathy, accepted aid offers and
even appealed for help to neighbouring Japan, despite recent frosty
relations. President Hu has accepted a call from President Bush to
discuss the earthquake as well as Tibet, and voiced restrained hope
for an "objective and fair attitude". And suggestions that foreign
relief workers may not be needed appear to be based not on defensive
secrecy but on the realistic assessment that China now has the
manpower and experience to cope.

Burma, by contrast, has neither the experience nor the capabilities
to deal with the neediest 1.5 million people now at risk. The
military Government's refusal, ten days after the cyclone, to accept
help and expertise is causing growing frustration in United Nations
and international relief agencies and has even led to proposals, well
intentioned though impractical, for armed intervention to deliver
aid. It is hard to comprehend a mindset so closed to reality that it
puts the security of a regime above the survival of the population.
But a junta that still regards the cyclone as an omen of its wisdom
in moving the capital inland is one that has little conception of how
it is derided abroad. Perhaps only China can convey the harsh truth.
It needs to do so. Beijing has shown sense and leadership in rescuing
its own victims. Tough talk to Burma might also help to rescue those
suffering in that benighted country.
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