Monday, May 12, 2008

Sowing the Wind

The cunning of history, Hegel's term for unintended consequences coming back to bite political actors, might be in the works in the country formerly known as Burma [Myanmar]. The Iriwaddy delta is devastated, 35,000 to 100,000 people (depending on whose estimate) have already died, another 1.5 million are without food, potable water, shelter and are vulnerable to disease. Yet the generals who rule Myanmar have limited the influx of aid from outside, diverted resources from relief efforts for a referendum to rubber stamp their rule and even prevented rich Burmese from providing money and aid to the cowevne's victims. They are suspicious that any collective actions, self-organization or outside intervention, which is not under their control, can become politically charged and weaken their grip on power. Such suspicions are frequent among leaders or authoritarian governments and even democracies, when facing or contemplating the aftermath of disasters.

The generals, however, may not have considered that a regime's refusal or inability to alleviate the suffering of its subjects after a disaster erodes whatever legitimacy it might have. Thus the Iranian government's incompetence in organizing effective relief for earthquakes in 1977 and 1978 fueled popular opposition to the Shah and hastened his downfall. Of course all such failures do not have such a result. The mullarchy in Iran has been no more effective in responding to earthquakes since the Shah, Stalin did not suffer for letting the Ukrainian peasants starve in the 1930s and George W. Bush is still president, despite his administration's miserable failure in responding to the devastation of Hurricaine Katrina.

But Christian Science Monitor's David Montero reports from Bangkok that observers expect the regime to lose some power as a result of its inaction. "This is an opportunity for opposition groups to make limited gains," says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, head of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "There will be mounting pressures on the government because of its inadequacies. Opposition groups have the upper hand."

In contrast to the Burmese generals, Chinese authorities appear to be effectively handling the aftermath of today's devastating earthquake in Sichuan province. NPR's Melissa Block reports from the provicial capital Chengdu that cranes were on the scene in a few hours to remove debris of flattened buildings in desperate searches for survivors. Perhaps this contrast will finally convince Chinese officials that the Burmese generals do not merit China's support -- a conclusion that the Burmese dissidents and their supporters have long been pressing China to reach.

More on the Chinese response to the earthquake from James Fallows, an old China hand and editor of the Atlantic Monthly:

Most of the channels on the (state controlled) CCTV are running the normal game shows, Olympic warmups (especially torch-relay updates), teen music shows, etc. But the CCTV-1 news channel is having all-out coverage of the earthquake in Sichuan province. Brief cultural notes:

- The coverage included a long segment of premier Wen Jiabao reading a speech about his deep concern for the people of Sichuan, from aboard an airplane en route to the disaster scene. Background: after the country was paralyzed by unexpected snow storms in February, the leadership was criticized for a Katrina-like slowness in dealing with the problem. Prominent coverage now of the main officials responding immediately to this disaster.

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