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The World and its Media are Playing the Dictators' Game

May 21, 2008

Heroic Chinese rescuers and quake survivors lead the news. But away
from our TVs, the Burmese we could save are left to die
Simon Jenkins, simon.jenkins@guardian.co.uk
The Guardian (UK)
May 21, 2008

This article appeared in the Guardian on Wednesday May 21 2008 on p35
of the Comment & debate section. It was last updated at 00:03 on May 21 2008.

Two dictators faced two disasters, one in China, the other in Burma.
One was an earthquake, the other a flood. Tens of thousands are dead
and millions at risk. Being dictatorial, both regimes responded in a
manner heavy with the politics of sovereignty. In one case that helps
people, in the other it kills them.

Natural disasters are the world's greatest murderers after war and
disease. Nature does not do revenge (as far as we know), but it
leaves human beings to do mercy and recuperation. How they performs
that task is the test of civilisation.

China's response to the Sichuan earthquake contrasts so glaringly
with previous responses that I am inclined to revise my view of the
Olympics: perhaps they should always be held in dictatorships. After
the shambles of the world torch tour, the handling of the earthquake
has been a political coup.

Inviting the media to the scene was fairly low risk. An earthquake is
one big bang and, with the entire Red Army available, a rescue is a
rescue. The world has fallen in love with trapped Chinese, tearful
Chinese, heroic Chinese, efficient Chinese. A nation often portrayed
as a massive monotony is revealed for the first time as composed of
sensitive humans. Tibet and the torch have been forgotten and the
Olympics shifted from obscene accolade to worthy reward. China is
overnight OK. It leads the news.

Poor little Burma. Its disaster is far greater and its deaths
possibly four times worse than China's. As the head of the Merlin
relief agency, Sean Keogh, said on the radio yesterday, "such an epic
calamity would test the reserves of any nation", none more so than Burma's.

The nature of its disaster means that the initial death toll from the
tidal wave may well be overwhelmed by a secondary one from starvation
and disease. In China, a few more lucky souls may be pulled from the
rubble. In Burma, tens of thousands continue to teeter between
salvation and death. The Burmese victims need help to a degree that
China does not.

The people of the Irrawaddy delta are the most charming and most
wretched in south-east Asia. While the rest of Britain's Indian
empire adopted some form of democracy, Burma became a brutish
hegemony, its leaders from the same charm school as Cambodia's Pol
Pot. They still imprison, torture and kill their opponents, and
suppress dissident minorities such as the Karens.

Unlike China, with the Olympics in the offing, Burma's regime has no
interest in publicity. Under economic sanctions since 1991, its
narrative to its people is that the outside world, especially the
west, is the cause of all their woes. They can be saved only by the
omnipotent, self-styled State Law and Order Restoration Council
(Orwellian acronym, SLORC). That Burma should need foreign help, let
alone from foreign soldiers, destroys that narrative. It is anathema.

To the regime, publicity and the aid it might bring is a greater
disaster than any hurricane. It suggests incompetence and impotence.
So instead we read daily stories of western diplomats "putting
pressure" on intransigent generals. We read of neighbouring states
sending in pitiful trickles of aid. The UN World Food Programme
reports that fewer than a quarter of a million victims have received
any help at all, in an area with two million at risk. Keogh says he
saw no helicopters at work. Yet the agencies, which must keep their
peace with the regime, dare not complain, let alone take pictures.

The world and its media are playing the dictators' game. They are
doing exactly what the Chinese regime wants, and exactly what the
Burmese regime wants. They are giving inordinate coverage to every
crushed Sichuan school-child and ignoring two million Burmese.

In China the victim is the story. In Burma it is the awfulness of the
regime. The media salves its conscience, as do politicians, by
stressing the "urgency" of the catastrophe and callousness of the
generals. It regards that as its job well done.

Off the Irrawaddy coast for the past 10 days has sat an aid armada,
including two dozen heavy-lift helicopters vital to transport
supplies over water and broken roads. The full panoply of
humanitarian intervention, so boasted by Tony Blair in 1998 and by
the UN in 2006, stands idle.

That panoply was proudly mobilised by politicians and aid merchants
to help the afflicted of Lebanon and Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo,
Aghanistan and Iraq. Then I recall no pettifogging over proper
channels, no "we can do only what the regime permits". Then lawyers
were told to validate intervention rather than object to it.
Thousands of human lives were at risk, and that was enough to send in
the marines.

Not now. Now, for some reason, we are told by these brave hearts that
we must defer to the sensibilities of a dictatorship. We must
consider what might happen if a helicopter were shot down. We must
think of aid agency staff on the ground. We grasp thankfully at this
week's dilatory and implausible "breakthrough", under which the
regime promises to let in our aid if it comes under an Asean banner.
Like hell it will.

When, long ago, I was pleading the humanitarian cause of the East
Timorese, the usual response was, who are they? The answer was, they
were the same as the Lebanese, the Somalians and the Kosovans, but
unfortunately not on television. Only when they rose in bloody revolt
did the camera crews arrive.

The truth of modern foreign policy is that it responds not to
humanitarian need but, as in Iraq, to domestic politics and some
warped perception of national security. Humanitarianism is only a
factor when some catastrophe discomfits those into whose sitting
rooms it is beamed by the media.

I have no desire to fight, let alone topple, the Burmese generals. I
do not believe, if aid pallets were airlifted ashore, the regime's
pitiful force in the delta would dare attack them, and I would expect
air cover if they tried. Nor do I care what the Chinese or Thais say
about the matter. Such action would have nothing to do with the fate
of the generals, rather with that of the hundreds of thousands they
have left to die.

We cannot save lives in China, but we can in Burma. We choose not to
do so because the Burmese regime has successfully choked the
publicity that nowadays motivates humanitarian zeal. Burma is not on
television. That is civilisation for you.
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