THE BLOG
05/21/2008 12:52 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Dictators and Disasters

Two dictators faced two disasters, one in China, the other in Burma. One
was an earthquake, the other a flood. Ten of thousands are dead and
millions at risk. Being dictatorial, both regimes have 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
humans to do mercy and recuperation. How humanity 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, and coming just when Beijing most needed one.

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 two,
three, 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 ruthlessly suppress
dissident minorities such as the Kachins and Karens.

Unlike China, with 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 a 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 has for the past ten 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 would expect air cover if they
tried. Nor do I care what the Chinese or Thais say about the matter. This
has nothing to do with the fate of the generals, rather with that of the
hundreds of thousands of human beings whom 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 publicity, the
conduit that nowadays motivates humanitarian intervention. Burma is not on
television. That is civilisation for you.