Democrats & Liberals Archives

How to Grow Tragedies - Myanmar

As we have watched the government of Myanmar block aid to victims of cyclone Nargis, anger and frustration have been present in every report. It is only to be expected that a government would try to aid the victims of disaster as quickly as possible.

The evidence of the Myanmar government's lack of response is read as just another example of how bad it really is. While I agree that the military government of Myanmar is a "bad" government, they did not get there without help, and they don't stand alone in lack of response to disaster.

You may recall Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Then too, there was a lack of government response (more than 5 days before mobilized efforts), and even when it did start, it was a total debacle - "Good job Brownie" (Land of the Absurd - Politics of Katrina Response). Further, the Bush administration also refused international aid. Even firefighters from Canada were idled well outside the disaster zone. Meanwhile, people died.

Now we watch Myanmar, and they too have significantly blocked desperately needed international support. The claims of government paranoia and callousness run through virtually every news story. However, there is certainly some reasoning behind the junta's reluctance to allow international aid - particularly that supplied by foreign militaries. Would any nation accept a foreign military uncontrolled and unmonitored on their soil? Likely not if they could help it. Likewise, "foreigners" in the form of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) running hither and thither don't sound that good either. Along with what likely is an issue of priorities (assuring the military's ongoing place in the government), and callousness, the government could not mobilize to even coordinate the disaster response. Further, they apparently don't trust anyone else to coordinate it either.

Fueling distrust is Myanmar's failure to get off the IMF's "Heavily Indebted Poor Country" (HIPC) list. They were listed in 1998, and yearly pleas and efforts have not removed them from the list. This means that Myanmar has been inelligible for international aid and assistance. This was exacerbated in 2003, when economic sanctions were placed on the country. This situation has increased the influence of private corporations in Burma, as well as the influence of India, China and Russia. Much of this "interest" has focused around Myanmar's natural gas reserves. Given the isolationism involved, these outside "interests" have assisted, and filled the coffers, of the military dictatorship at the expense of the people of Myanmar (Burma: The Back Story).

Now we read in the Guardian that Myanmar is loading up rice for export to India and Bangladesh as the cyclone victims starve. Horriffying and unconscionable for sure, but what is going on here?

Surely it has nothing to do with the World Trade Organization pressuring rice exporting nations to continue to export their rice - while their own people can't eat. The argument for this being that nations that decrease their exports in the face of escalating grain cost are engaging in the national equivalent of hoarding. Nations not exporting in an import/export economy means that the system of dependency breaks down - and that potentially more people will starve. One of the primary exports from Myanmar is rice. That also makes it a primary source of national income. Further, the region hit by Nargis (the Irrawaddy Delta) is the prime rice growing area - and that the current rice crop is destroyed.

SO here we have a poor country, trying to get out of HIPC status so it can access loans, being told by the WTO to not stop exporting, while the need within its own country is beyond question. Can anybody send a straight, consistent message here? Are India and China demanding their imports of rice from Myanmar? My guess is they are. Has the WTO told the government of Myanmar that they can distribute their rice internally in this crisis without further retaliation? My guess is they haven't.

Knowing that the junta - awful as it is - is also working within certain constraints, might the global community offer some incentives that would move the government to allow a response to the victims of the cyclone? I think the answer to that is "yes." Perhaps behind the scenes that is what is going on. If so, that is sure not the way the disaster and response are being painted.

I believe that the government of Myanmar is about as corrupt as a government can get. I also think that it benefits a variety of interests for it to remain both corrupt - and brutal. I get tired of the finger pointing at the junta as if they are operating all alone while the world stands "helplessly" by. Acknowledging the whole sordid mess of influences and interests points us in the direction of what might be done to get needed supplies and assistance to a desperately needy population. However, acknowledging all the dirty hands in the pot would undermine those "interests." Let's just be honest for once, and do what is necessary to respond to the crisis at hand.

Posted by Rowan Wolf at May 13, 2008 10:24 AM
Comment #252736
more than 5 days before mobilized efforts

Sorry, but this simply isn’t true. From my post two years ago

Dozens of National Guard and Coast Guard helicopters flew rescue operations that first day—some just 2 hours after Katrina hit the coast. Hoistless Army helicopters improvised rescues, carefully hovering on rooftops to pick up survivors. On the ground, “guardsmen had to chop their way through, moving trees and recreating roadways,” says Jack Harrison of the National Guard. By the end of the week, 50,000 National Guard troops in the Gulf Coast region had saved 17,000 people; 4000 Coast Guard personnel saved more than 33,000. These units had help from local, state and national responders, including five helicopters from the Navy ship Bataan and choppers from the Air Force and police. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries dispatched 250 agents in boats. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), state police and sheriffs’ departments launched rescue flotillas. By Wednesday morning, volunteers and national teams joined the effort, including eight units from California’s Swift Water Rescue. By Sept. 8, the waterborne operation had rescued 20,000.

While the press focused on FEMA’s shortcomings, this broad array of local, state and national responders pulled off an extraordinary success—especially given the huge area devastated by the storm. Computer simulations of a Katrina-strength hurricane had estimated a worst-case-scenario death toll of more than 60,000 people in Louisiana. The actual number was 1077 in that state.

Another example of the hype not living up to reality I suppose. Or, in other words, repeat it enough and enough will believe it as truth.

Posted by: Rhinehold at May 13, 2008 10:40 AM
Comment #252738

Rhinehold, you are right. The Coast Guard was certainly on the job and made almost superhuman efforts to respond to the disaster. However, FEMA and general federal government response was slow to absent. This was not simply media hype, but also came out in the Congressional hearings. State and local offices did mobilize as far as they could.

Posted by: Rowan at May 13, 2008 11:04 AM
Comment #252739

Navy? Air Force? I thought these things were federal as well… *shrug* BTW, FEMA was not and is still not a ‘first responder’ like the Coast Guard and other agencies.

I never said that the federal government couldn’t have responded better, faster. But it was no where NEAR the disaster or failure that Myanmar represents. The attempt to compare the two is beyond the reach of reality.

Posted by: Rhinehold at May 13, 2008 11:40 AM
Comment #252742

The difference is only in degree. The Coast Guard’s response was quick, so we can’t really say that Katrina was inherently a slow response. The reality was and is, though, that the response by those who could do something about the massive disaster relief part of the equation were too bogged down in red tape, political manuevering and laissez faire negligence.

The issues concerning the Myanmar Junta are more severe, but both show governments responding in a degenerated fashion in comparison to what is possible, due to corruption and shortsightedness on the part of the leadership.

In both cases we have the government arrogantly trying to push a political line, rather than taking what is the practically sound course of action.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at May 13, 2008 12:47 PM
Comment #252749

By degrees?

That’s like saying that the US is just a degree or two away from old time Russia because the government dictates what a person can do in regards to who we can marry, etc?


The Myanmar are blocking all attempts to assist those in need. That is a far different story than being incompetent. Or being too big to be able to deal with fast moving situations quickly enough for us critics.

How does ‘laissez faire’ negligence fall in, btw? It looks like that was pulled out of someone’s nether regions for political points, something worse, imo, than being incompetent, using other’s misery for political power plays.

Posted by: Rhinehold at May 13, 2008 2:46 PM
Comment #252764

The Myanmar, (they would love to know that some Americans will use that term even though our government refuses to acknowledge as other than Burmese), are a paranoid lot of western and outside influences because they are, as a government, a corrupt lot leaning heavily to simplistic approaches to governance, raw military and police power over the people. And they know that makes them targets for American aggressive and assertive pressures.

There is no way to justify their actions, but, their actions are explainable. How much less reluctant to western aid would they have been if the U.S. had not invaded Iraq on false pretenses? It is a difficult question to answer, but, a pertinent one to ask.

America has a lot fence mending to do after saying goodbye with anticipated relief to GW Bush. Half of all Democrats and many independents and some Republicans believe Obama is the person we need to begin mending those international fences. I would agree with them.

Obama needs to get his head out of his posterior on some other issues though like immigration and guns. He is on the wrong side of those fences. But, hopefully he will live up to his projections of being a person who knows what he doesn’t know, and consult with those who do and learn from them.

He does intend, afterall, to represent all the people, an impossible task for an American president to be sure, but, if the intent is there the actuality will be a vast improvement over the current administration.

Posted by: David R. Remer at May 13, 2008 6:09 PM
Comment #252786

Okay - we have Katrina where a couple hundred people died and this one in Burma where tens of thousands are killed. Do you really believe American lives are worth so much more that we can make that order of magnitude comparison?

Burma is a socialist dictatorship where government closely controls the economy. This is a failure of socialism as much as anything else. In the U.S. the GOVERNMENT response was not adequate BUT the private sector could take up the slack. In Burma the people are just out of luck. Government is incompetent and even criminal, but the people have few alternatives.

Re Burma - the current oppressive government can change the name if they want. I suppose they would be happy that some people use the name they chose. Given their recent behavior, I don’t think we want to make Burma’s rulers happy.

Posted by: Jack at May 13, 2008 11:28 PM
Comment #252803

I think Katrina and Burma are only comparable in that poor people living in a flood prone, Hurricane prone area are likely to be devastated.

I don’t think the governance issues, or political issues are at all comparable.

I live in Houston. During Tropical Storm Allison Houston flooded. My house was fine, but as development continues, my island of safety is diminishing. Additional upstream runoff may condemn me to vulnerability. I stayed put when Hurricane Rita was aimed at Houston. I couldn’t have gotten out if I wanted to, once the traffic jam from hell started, when the aftermath of Katrina and the media panicked people into a mass exodus. You live in a coastal swamp, ya takes yer chances. I’m 60 miles inland, but not safe. I was going to ride Rita out though.

Posted by: googlumpus at May 14, 2008 4:25 AM
Comment #252836

“people living in a flood prone, Hurricane prone area are likely to be devastated.”

It’s a good thing that there is no such thing as global warming, with increasing rainfall, and increasing intensity of storms. Because if there was, the population and the food production of those crucial delta areas could be permanently compromised.

Posted by: ohrealy at May 14, 2008 2:47 PM
Comment #252860

oh really,

Food production in Houston and New Orleans is virtually nil, and global warming doesn’t increase hurricane frequency or intensity. Rainfall patterns may change, but not categorically increase with global warming.

Other than those discrepancies…good post.

Posted by: googlumpus at May 14, 2008 9:24 PM
Comment #252867

Here is an interesting video of Vega 4’s Life is Beautiful. The part with maps of sea level risinhg is pretty interesting:

Posted by: ohrealy at May 14, 2008 11:29 PM
Comment #253028

Is it true that the government of Myanmar is hiring Bush to manage their recovery from the typhoon? Perhaps they were impressed by how he handled Katrina.

I mean, after all, McCain was going to have one of Myanmar’s lobbyists run the Republican National Convention….

Posted by: Glenn Contrarian at May 17, 2008 4:55 PM
Comment #253382

I’ve read a not so bad article about Myanmar, that’s going to put into some thinking. it’s in here

Posted by: Robert at May 22, 2008 12:22 PM
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