Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 00:29 | SYDNEY
Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 00:29 | SYDNEY

Two disasters, two responses


Malcolm Cook

8 May 2008 14:27

Another surging wave has crashed into a vulnerable Southeast Asian country, killing tens of thousands and leaving over a million people homeless (most of the destruction of the typhoon that hit Myanmar this weekend came from the huge wave surges it triggered). Yet, while the pictures and the causes are eerily similar to the fateful Boxing Day of 2004, the differences in the reaction to the two crises are marked.

When Aceh bore the brunt of the tsunami, the Indonesian Government quickly opened up this long-closed and restive area to the outside world and a flood of international NGOs. Equally, the world community (both governments and regular people) reacted quickly and generously, with the Australian people and government taking the lead. The $1 billion dollar tsunami-related aid program for Indonesia was organized in about a week in the usually not so speedy Canberra hallways and was well received in Australia and Jakarta. The Aceh tsunami helped facilitate a peace agreement between Aceh's separatist GAM movement and Jakarta. So, the Boxing Day tsunami helped strengthen the new Yudhoyono Government’s relations with a large number of countries, including Australia, and helped strengthen the territorial integrity and internal stability of Indonesia.

Alas, as we stand now, the opposite story may be playing out in Myanmar and the devastated Irrawaddy delta, the country’s rice bowl. Myanmar has the highest per capita consumption of rice in the world and very few resources to enter the skyrocketing work rice market to make up for the shortfall. So far, the Myanmar regime has been slow to open up to foreign aid providers, leading the colourful French Foreign Minister to muse about forceful aid interventions into the country. At the same time, the global response to the Myanmar crisis has been quite small. The former colonial power Great Britain leads with a $10 million commitment (the same amount Michael Schumacher donated to the 2004 tsunami relief), with Australia pledging $2.8 million, Indonesia $1 million and China, Myanmar’s best friend, half that (plus supplies).

The Western media is wondering if this might be a force to topple the regime in the aftermath of the failed saffron robe demonstrations. My sense is, not quite. Indonesia’s response to the Aceh tsunami and the world’s response to it strengthened Indonesia internally and externally and its newly democratically-elected administration. It looks like the Myanmar disaster will have the opposite effect on the rusted-on authoritarians in Myanmar, but it won't be enough to topple them. I hope I am wrong.