Leading article: Life and death in the shadow of a vile regime

Share
Related Topics

Natural disasters kill people. But how many die is often determined by factors which are not so arbitrary, nor indeed so natural. According to the Burmese authorities, 22,980 people have been confirmed dead in the massive cyclone which hit that country last weekend, and another 42,119 are missing. International aid workers fear the death toll could easily rise to 100,000 and the UN is talking of more than a million people in need of emergency relief. That the figures are so unclear six days after the event is itself a terrible indictment. By this stage a clear picture of the challenge ahead should be emerging. But the wilful delays by the Burmese military in allowing in both disaster management experts and supplies of emergency food, blankets and tents is unforgivable.

More people can die in the first few days after a natural disaster than perish in the event itself. That is because corpses pollute the water supply and spread infectious diseases which worsen by the day. With no shelter, sanitation, clean water contaminated by seawater and not much food, this disaster could turn into a catastrophe. The nature of the response in the first few hours and days is vital.

History shows that whether people live or die is often determined by government policies. In the terrible famines in Bengal in 1943 and in Ethiopia in 1973, and again in 1984, an overall shortage of food was not the problem; what killed people was government policies on movement of people and food stocks – and the workings of the free market – which switched the available food away from poor hungry people to those who could afford it. Millions died.

So too in Burma it is the behaviour of the military dictatorship which will kill people. The isolationist military regime which has terrorised Burma since it seized power in 1962 will not care one jot. Rather it fears what else an influx of outsiders will bring. The relief effort after the 2004 tsunami brought change in Aceh where the massive international presence was one of the factors that persuaded the Indonesian government and rebels to bring their long conflict to an end. Political change came too in Pakistan after large numbers of foreigners were allowed into Kashmir after the earthquake there in 2005.

Burma is ripe for change. The baseline condition of its people is miserable and yet they presently receive less aid per head than any of the world's poorest countries. Last year's pro-democracy protests by Buddhist monks were the most serious threat to the military regime for two decades. The last thing the generals now want is an influx of foreign aid officials and journalists to upset the equilibrium just as it is about to hold a controversial referendum on the new constitution it has drafted. Many observers have already condemned that as a sham. Letting in a huge influx of foreigners ahead of the poll could fuel more criticism of their political reforms.

It is no solution to say just dump the food in Rangoon airport and let the military regime distribute it, even ignoring the risk that the Army would siphon it away from those who really need it. Burma lacks the trucks, boats and fuel to get the aid to the people who need it. The troops, so readily in evidence to suppress any pro-democracy demonstrations, have been notable by their absence. They do not have the skills or equipment to rebuild the destroyed roads and bridges. Much of the delta is normally only accessible by boat. An effective relief operation needs people with experience of managing a disaster this big and who know how to keep aid moving. All this the Burmese military regime understands full well. We must hope for the sake of the victims of this disaster, that its leaders, for once, follow the humane course, and allow the aid agencies full access.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Nursery Manager

£100 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Ilford: Nursery Manager Long term Ran...

Sales Consultant – Permanent – West Sussex – £24-£25k plus commission and other benefits

£24000 - £25000 Per Annum plus company car and commission: Clearwater People S...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£45 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: Supply SEN Support Jobs in Bris...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£45 - £60 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: Supply SEN Support Jobs in Glou...

Day In a Page

Read Next
East German border guards stand on a section of the Berlin wall in front of the Brandenburg gate on November 11, 1989  

Twenty-five years after the Berlin Wall fell, Hungary’s PM thinks it is Western capitalism that is in its death throes

Peter Popham
 

Business leaders like Apple's Tim Cook must stop being one thing in public and another in private

Chris Blackhurst
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes
Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs:

Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs

"I have never regarded anything I have done in "the media" as a proper job"
Lyricist Richard Thomas shares his 11-step recipe for creating a hit West End musical

11-step recipe for creating a West End hit

Richard Thomas, the lyricist behind the Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole Smith operas, explains how Bob Dylan, 'Breaking Bad' and even Noam Chomsky inspired his songbook for the new musical 'Made in Dagenham'
Tonke Dragt's The Letter for the King has finally been translated into English ... 50 years on

Buried treasure: The Letter for the King

The coming-of-age tale about a boy and his mission to save a mythical kingdom has sold a million copies since it was written by an eccentric Dutchwoman in 1962. Yet until last year, no one had read it in English
Can instilling a sense of entrepreneurship in pupils have a positive effect on their learning?

The school that means business

Richard Garner heads to Lancashire, where developing the 'dragons' of the future is also helping one community academy to achieve its educational goals
10 best tablets

The world in your pocket: 10 best tablets

They’re thin, they’re light, you can use them for work on the move or keeping entertained
Lutz Pfannenstiel: The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents

Lutz Pfannenstiel interview

The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents
Pete Jenson: Popular Jürgen Klopp can reignite Borussia Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern Munich

Pete Jenson's a Different League

Popular Klopp can reignite Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern
John Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

The use of the British hostage demonstrates once again the militants' skill and originality in conducting a propaganda war, says Patrick Cockburn
The killer instinct: The man who helps students spot potential murderers

The killer instinct

Phil Chalmers travels the US warning students how to spot possible future murderers, but can his contentious methods really stop the bloodshed?
Clothing the gap: A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd

Clothing the gap

A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd
Fall of the Berlin Wall: Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain

The Fall of the Berlin Wall

Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain