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BURMA: Earthquake Lets China Off the Hook

Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING, May 23 2008 (IPS) - The outpouring of global sympathy in the aftermath of the deadly Sichuan earthquake has shifted the focus away from China’s role and influence in cyclone-stricken Burma, quieting critics.

Soldiers keep vigil against possible protests by cyclone victims in Rangoon.  Credit: Mizzima News

Soldiers keep vigil against possible protests by cyclone victims in Rangoon. Credit: Mizzima News

But the openness that Chinese leaders have displayed in the handling of their own natural disaster has emboldened Chinese citizens and the country’s increasingly daring media to probe neighbouring Burma’s crisis from unexpected angles.

Just days after the earthquake struck the province of Sichuan, the Chinese weekly Southern Weekend carried a full-page expose of the misery of Burmese people affected by Cyclone Nargis, providing first-hand accounts from some of the most ravaged areas in the Irrawaddy Delta.

Voices of Burmese government officials were conspicuously absent from the article. Ordinary villagers’ grievances though were featured prominently along with pledges by Burma-based Chinese charities and Chinese businesses for donations.

The mere appearance of the report titled ‘The predicament of Burmese style disaster relief’ makes for an unusual read in the Chinese state press where stories from Burma are carefully screened and the information that trickles in paltry. But the conclusions drawn by the report were even more striking.

"The current state of relief operations is worrying,'' the article stated. "If the situation doesn’t improve, the humanitarian crisis enfolding in Burma would be no less disastrous than the natural calamity that befell…’’

The article stopped short of calling on Beijing to take a more pro-active stance and use its close ties with the junta in helping international aid reach Burmese cyclone victims. But the contrasting pictures of how the two countries were dealing with the terrible natural disasters that have inflicted their people were telling.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was on the ground just hours after the earthquake struck Sichuan provinces, taking charge of a rescue operation involving some 100,000 People’s Liberation Army soldiers and pledging ''to use all our forces, and save lives at whatever cost''. Beijing thanked the outside world for its sympathy, accepting aid offers and even allowing foreign relief teams to help in the quake areas.

By contrast, Burma’s military government refused any help and expertise for more than ten days after the Cyclone Nargis struck, killing an estimated 120,000 people. Tens of thousands are now at risk from disease because of their lack of access to clean drinking water, food, medical supplies and shelter. International relief effort has been frustrated by Burma's refusal to give foreign aid workers full access to the cyclone-affected areas and cooperate with foreign agencies.

China’s speedy response to its own disaster may have been somewhat influenced by the global reaction to Burmese junta’s conduct after the cyclone ravaged that country. The Burmese regime has been commonly condemned and Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has called the junta’s response "callous".

But the international community has also been divided on how to influence the Burmese junta to open up to foreign expertise and aid. There have been calls by Western powers to evoke the United Nations principle of "responsibility to protect", and to enter the country without the government’s consent to deliver aid.

China, India, Thailand and other Asian countries meanwhile, have refrained from publicly confronting the junta over its refusal to accept help, and have worked behind the scenes to get some of their own aid inside Burma.

Struggling to cope with the earthquake, China still managed to dispatch a 50-strong medical team to Burma this week, carrying 32 tonnes of food, water and medicine for the survivors of the storm, the state television said. Beijing has also pledged 5.2 million US dollars in emergency aid, according to the Chinese foreign ministry.

But human rights groups have called on China to do more by using its close links with Burma to persuade the junta to accept all the international aid that cyclone survivors badly need.

"China should do everything in its power to get sufficient aid into Burma or it will share responsibility for the deaths of tens of thousands of people," said Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch’s Asia director in a statement.

Despite its clout with the junta, Beijing had been reluctant to play a larger diplomatic role in pressuring the regime to let in foreign help. Chinese companies have invested heavily in Burma’s natural resources, while Beijing had provided financial support in the form of conditions-free loans, political backing and military armaments.

One of Burma’s closest allies and protector at the United Nations Security Council where it holds veto power, China promotes "bilateral consultations" as the way forward to the humanitarian crisis. Beijing blocked a proposal by France to invoke the "responsibility to protect" provisions at the Security Council earlier saying it would needlessly politicise the issue of aid.

Liu Zhenmin, China’s deputy permanent representative to the Untied Nations, urged "the relevant international agencies and donor countries to resolve specific issues arising during disaster relief through bilateral consultations".

Yet diplomats here believe the devastating earthquake that hit Sichuan last week might have made Beijing more receptive to international calls for help.

"Keeping their ‘hands off’ approach would be inconsistent with the image of a competent and compassionate power that they have presented to the world over the last week," says one foreign diplomat in Beijing.

What is more, allowing its citizens to view the full picture of the destruction and death afflicted on China by the earthquake would make it more difficult to suppress news about the devastation in neighbouring cyclone-stricken Burma. The report in the Southern Weekend is a harbinger of what could follow if Beijing perseveres with the media openness. "Questions will be asked," predicts the diplomat.

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