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

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

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Labour leader Ed Miliband unveils Labour's pledges carved into a stone plinth in Hastings  

Election 2015: Smash the two-party system! Smash the voting system!

Armando Iannucci
Tactical voting is a necessary evil of the current first-past-the-post system, where voters vote against what they do not want rather than in favour of what they do  

Election 2015: Voting tactically has become more fraught in new political order

Michael Ashcroft
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever