Heroic Chinese rescuers and quake survivors lead the news. But away from our TVs, the Burmese we could save are left to die
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.