Asian disasters and awful human folly

Matt Gardner - Online columnist

This time last month, I was hoping for a few shots of lava from Colombia's Nevado del Huila volcano to brighten up the slow news weeks of April. I didn't expect that nature would answer my boredom by tenfold.

Now we have two of the most shocking natural disasters in recent times, again engulfing East Asia. Some of the most disturbing imagery I've seen in recent years has only been outdone by the human idiocy that governs over so many of those affected by the tragedies.

Here's a recap.

As we all know, both Burma and China have been affected by sheer destruction. On 3 May, Cyclone Nargis swept through the Irawaddy Delta in South East Burma. Currently it has the morbid fame of being the 8th deadliest cyclone ever. With deaths now at over 77,000 with the final total possibly reaching anywhere up to 124,000 lives lost, it is by far the worst tragedy to hit the North Indian Basin, and possibly the worst to claim lives on mainland Asia.

Less than two weeks later, on 12 May, the Wenchuan County disappeared under thousands of tons of rubble after an earthquake, measuring 7.9 Mw, wiped out most of the buildings in the area. With over 32,000 dead (and rising), as well as 220,000 injured and 5 million homeless, it is China's biggest disaster since the Tangshan earthquake in 1976. Luckily, it doesn't seem to be approaching the number of fatalities in Tangshan, which could have been anything from 250,000 to 750,000.

So, where did it all go wrong?

If you told people that both China and Burma would have had a major natural disaster, they would have predicted events to have taken the complete opposite directions as to what they did.

Burma, now known as Myanmar, is an ex-colony of Great Britain (which gained independence in 1948) and currently sits second-bottom in the table for Gross Domestic Product between Kiribati and Sao Tome and Principe as measured by the International Monetary Fund in 2007. With infrastructure being very poor and governed by a relatively technophobic military junta, the nation is stranded amidst the terror of the storms.

China, however, is the modern version of the Soviet Union and an extremely rich one at that. The newest superpower and the one that will, sooner or later, turn out to be the strongest, China has (on the whole) a strong and obedient workforce with great communication systems. Productivity is phenomenal, at one point turning private mobile phone ownership from 0 into 200 million - in one year.

And yet Burma refuses aid, cameras and journalists, whilst China openly accepts every single offer. The reason, to me, is very basic.

China, host of the Olympic Games this summer, has hit a crisis of image. With the Olympic torch processions throughout the world - which will be postponed for three days of national mourning - have been marred by protests along every foreign route due to their questionable treatment of Tibet. Although any humanitarian aid mission should be accepted, it's not hard to believe that China is opening its doors a little early in order to broker stronger ties with the nations that have questioned its moral compass.

However, independence is the key factor in Burma. Although the junta in power has been shown for the tyranny that it seems to be (even struggling to deliver foreign aid 10 miles down the road - aid that they refused for a week after the devastation), their insistence on closed borders, plain clothes policemen and journalist deportation is clearly a sign for the rest of the world that Burma can handle its own problems.

Even if they can't, and aren't.

And as the death toll rises in Asia, the help that people have naturally offered to the victims of the latest round of natural disasters is seemingly reduced to politics. Granted, China is acting as it should, but even the more pro-China people of the world would have struggled to predict this political about-face which, to the more cynical members of the Chinese government, may have shown  'weakness'.

However, it's the sheer stupidity of Burma that will not be forgotten. Even if they did do something to help domestically, it wouldn't have helped their international image to turn away foreign aid. As we see more videos of bloated dead bodies floating in the Delta and thousands huddled together under the few surviving structures, we wonder if we could ever help a state that is founded on sheer barbarism.