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

Opilio Recruitment: QA Automation Engineer

£30k - 38k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: An award-winning consume...

Opilio Recruitment: UX & Design Specialist

£40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Opilio Recruitment: Publishing Application Support Analyst

£30k - 35k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We’re currently re...

Opilio Recruitment: Digital Marketing Manager

£35k - 45k per year + benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A Pokot woman holds a razor blade after performing a circumcision on four girls  

The campaigns to end FGM are a welcomed step, but they don't go far enough

Charlotte Rachael Proudman
Our political system is fragmented, with disillusioned voters looking to the margins for satisfaction  

Politics of hope needed to avert flight to margins

Liam Fox
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game