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Analysts Monitor Political Impact of Disaster Response in China, Burma


The cyclone in Burma and the earthquake in China require a huge disaster relief response by the respective governments. The twin disasters have also prompted worldwide offers of help for the affected areas. But the Chinese and Burmese responses, both to internal disaster relief and offers of foreign assistance, have been markedly different. In this TV background report, VOA correspondent looks at the politics of humanitarian disaster relief.

When a cyclone rips fragile homes into shreds in Burma's Irrawaddy River delta or the earth rattles and shakes in China's Sichuan province, bringing buildings crashing down, leaving thousands of people dead and homeless in both countries, there is a humanitarian impulse to help the afflicted. But politics often interjects itself into disaster relief.

Barry Scanlon, a former senior official of the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, says the handling of disaster relief, by both the affected country's government and contributing countries, has political ramifications.

"Disasters hit everyone. And when we try to go in and help people, whether it's any government, I think it makes the host government look good because they're helping their own people, and it certainly helps us on the world stage, or any country," Scanlon said.

The Burmese and Chinese governments' responses to the catastrophes are striking in their differences. China shows a previously unheard-of openness as it dispatches massive relief and aid workers to the region accompanied by Chinese and Western journalists, and even Chinese premier Wen Jiabao.

But Burma's military rulers initially refuse to allow any foreign assistance or aid workers into the country. And when aid is finally allowed to trickle in - while most aid workers and journalists are barred -- the government seizes it, insisting on distributing it itself.

Barry Scanlon says international politics is at play, "Unfortunately, it seems that political situations in some areas of the world help people make the wrong decisions, and keep them from receiving the aid and helping their people when they obviously need it."

Richard Olson is a professor of political science at Florida International University who has written extensively about how government's responses to disasters can have political fallout.

Olson says Chinese leaders have learned some hard lessons from their handling of past disasters, "And they also seem to have a very wise and intelligent and shrewd estimation that they can a lot of political credit with their populations by in a sense having a good response and opening themselves for international assistance."

While Burma's response, guided by a fear of outsiders, is bound to have repercussions over the long term.

"Well, when a disaster comes along and they can't manage the crisis, it's the political equivalent of the emperor has no clothes," Olson said. "So the Burmese population has to be saying, 'why are we putting up with a military government if it can't handle a crisis."

The lessons of political fallout from disaster response were evident in the United States in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. Despite wide criticism of the government's slow response to the disaster, President Bush praised then-FEMA Director Michael Brown.

"Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job. The FEMA Director is working 24 -- (applause) -- they're working 24 hours a day. Again, my attitude is, if it's not going exactly right, we're going to make it go exactly right. If there's problems, we're going to address the problems," Bush said.

Only to have Brown resign 10 days later.

Scanlon says, "There was no doubt the United States, the Bush administration, after Hurricane Katrina, once they realized not only the scale of the disaster but the political costs they were incurring, really stimulated a much more coordinated response. But those initial three to four days were terrible not only for the victims but politically for the administration."

Analysts also point out that foreign governments can score political points with disaster aid to a country that may be hostile or unfriendly. But that is one reason, they say, why some host governments do not want foreign disaster aid to come in.