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Politics Drives Crisis Response in Asia

On May 2, Cyclone Nargis ripped across Burma, killing more than 78-thousand people. Ten days later, a massive earthquake shook China's Sichuan province, killing at least 69-thousand people. Beijing has been open about the quake, quickly responding and allowing wide domestic and foreign media coverage. But Rangoon's generals have restricted relief efforts and news about the cyclone. What are the international and domestic political ramifications of the two disasters?

The cyclone winds have passed and the earthquake aftershocks are subsiding. But analysts say political reverberations from the twin disasters in Burma and China will be felt for some time.

Richard Olson at Florida International University has researched the intersection of natural disasters and politics, and says a government's legitimacy -- both domestically and on the world stage -- can hinge on how it responds to a disaster.

"Disasters pose political problems for every regime and for every government because, fairly or unfairly, people -- victims, people who feel empathy with the victims -- expect the government to lead the response, to coordinate the response, to, in a sense, act like an accountable entity and to help people in need. It's one of the primordial functions of the state," says Olson.

The China-Burma Difference

China, which treated previous disasters as if they were state secrets, moved quickly to send in relief and rescue teams. And reporters -- including Western journalists -- extensively covered the disaster. In stark contrast, Burma, also known as Myanmar, has barred most media and foreign aid workers from the country, and accepted only a tiny fraction of the disaster relief offered by the international community. Most of the supplies that have arrived have been seized by the government, which insists on distributing the aid itself.

Robert Hunter, a senior advisor at the RAND Corporation here in Washington, says, "The Chinese government has responded with alacrity, doing an awful lot of things and even welcoming help from outside. This is a far cry from what the Chinese would have done back during the Mao [Zedong] period. Burma, by contrast, is demonstrating that the leadership has little or no concern for the people of Myanmar themselves."

Most analysts say China gained some political "points" from its handling of the disaster. They say Beijing was already suffering from bad publicity for its handling of recent demonstrations in Tibet and that it did not want another public relations black mark before the upcoming Olympic Games. However, recent reports indicate that the government is now cracking down on some of the earthquake journalism by banning stories on issues such as corruption and shoddy school construction in the earthquake zone.

Robert Hunter, a former U.S. ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, says that in contrast, Burma does not seem to care what the world thinks.

"This is a society that has never been that engaged in the outside world. It had a colonial past that they don't seem to be able to surmount. And, remarkably -- and this, I think, is not only tragic, but I would say it's almost criminal -- the leadership there is more concerned with its own prerogatives and its own prerequisites than it is about the simple human question of people in their country who are hurting very badly," says Hunter.

Political scientist Richard Olson says most governments' initial reluctance to accept outside help soon fades when they realize that they are unable to handle the disaster. "The initial idea is, 'Oh, we can do a good job and take credit and receive public points for a good disaster response.' And then about two or three days later, it becomes obvious that they really don't have the capabilities to do that. And then the negative sets in -- high expectations, relatively low performance. And they start losing public points," says Olson.

The Broader View

The international humanitarian impulse to help people in need is strong. But as analyst Robert Hunter points out, countries that donate aid out of the goodness of their hearts often win some hearts and minds as well, as the United States did with its earthquake aid to Pakistan in 2005. "Oh, I don't think that there's any question that we've known for a long time now that it's not just doing good, but it's doing well at the same time -- that governments that have compassion also gain politically from it. And I'm glad to say that in the United States, we have had governments that almost always show compassion, and tend to gain in the court of world public opinion for that," says Hunter.

Richard Olson notes that governments that are slow to respond to disasters can suffer politically when opposition political parties or groups step into the breach to help. "There are a number of examples where political parties or movements have taken advantage of -- that's not really the right term -- but there's a window of opportunity for them to demonstrate efficiency and capability and compassion and, in a way, compete with the government by getting into a disaster-stricken area with meaningful assistance," says Olson.

Suffering vs. Sovereignty

The Burmese government's refusal to allow most aid or aid workers to reach areas hit by the cyclone has fueled the debate over whether states or the United Nations should intervene in a country to prevent a humanitarian crisis when its government will not or cannot act.

Robert Hunter of the RAND Corporation says there may be circumstances when suffering outweighs sovereignty. "The old rules simply won't work if there are leaderships who insist on putting their own narrow -- what they believe to be self-interests -- ahead of the very basic requirements of human existence and human dignity," says Hunter.

But the question of humanitarian intervention is a very sensitive one. Although intervention may have the lofty motive of saving civilian lives, analysts say many governments, especially authoritarian ones, view such measures as unwarranted interference in their internal affairs.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.