Tuesday 18 Jun 2019 | 17:20 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 18 Jun 2019 | 17:20 | SYDNEY

Disaster relief: China good, Burma bad

14 May 2008 10:23

Guest blogger: Alistair Thornton (pictured) is a Beijing-based economic analyst.

Early on Monday afternoon, mild tremors disturbed my usually uneventful Chinese grammar class. And like in that scene in Jurassic Park, my water glass started vibrating. It took a few seconds for us to realise what was happening, and by then, it was pretty much over. Friends in higher buildings than mine felt dizzy from the swaying, and many in office blocks downtown were evacuated after the furniture started to rumble. Our attention was drawn back to the blackboard, and on with business as usual. The same can’t be said for the Southwest of China.

The country’s worst earthquake for 30 years, measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale, has already killed 12,000 and the death toll is rising fast. Thousands are trapped in the collapsed rubble of hospitals, schools, homes and factories. 

The government sprang to life. Within two hours both the Premier, Wen Jiabao, and the President, Hu Jintao, had released statements calling for earthquake relief and rescue to be the government’s highest priority. Wen Jiabao flew to the area and was to be seen scrabbling over rubble, shouting encouraging words to trapped victims, whilst rescue workers dug furiously. Xinhua, the official news agency, has been broadcasting continuous updates, streaming pictures and video footage of affected regions. The army was mobilised immediately, with over 50,000 troops pouring into the region. The Ministry of Health released an urgent appeal for blood donations, and the central government has allocated USD$52 million for disaster relief.

All in all, the government is responding competently and swiftly. This is in sharp contrast to what is happening in Burma.

UN estimates of the death toll from the cyclone that hit the Irrawaddy delta are around 100,000. Deaths from disease, starvation and lack of shelter are on the rise, and some estimates claim they could reach 1.5 million without the necessary clean water and sanitation. However, in response to this, the ruling military junta shut down the media, tried to push on with the referendum and, until yesterday, adamantly refused foreign assistance. They even stooped to unfathomable lows by plastering names of senior junta officials on aid boxes from Thailand to mislead the Burmese public.

British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, slammed the country’s rulers, saying 'a natural disaster is turning into a humanitarian catastrophe of genuinely epic proportions, in significant part because of what I would describe as the malign neglect of the regime'.

As Rory has noted, the region’s institutional architecture has proved vastly ineffective in pressing the regime. R2P is a great idea, and a massive step forward in world of international norms, but I doubt we will see it enacted anytime soon. And unfortunately, China, the country with the most sway over Rangoon, has now got its hands full…