Dictators only save their skins

To understand the indifference of Burma’s military rulers to the suffering of cyclone Nargis survivors, look no further than the large gold lettering on the gates of the army’s officer training school. It proclaims the young officers to be “the Triumphant Elite of the Future”, which sums up the attitude of the men who have run Burma for 46 years and regard themselves as above the people, with the perpetual right to tell them what to do. It’s much the same in Zimbabwe where Robert Mugabe’s recent campaign slogan was “Get behind the fist” with a picture of his, firmly clenched.

Mugabe’s message — that his opponents are traitors to the liberation movement and not true Zimbabweans — was clear and those not behind the fist are liable to be crushed by it. In winning the war against white domination, he regards his Zanu-PF party as also having won the right to rule indefinitely.

The two regimes have much in common besides decades in power and a deep-seated paranoia. The crisis in Burma lays bare how both regard their own survival, and enrichment, as paramount, no matter how many of their citizens die along the way. It’s a common trait in authoritarian regimes. The Burmese army doesn’t really think it is better able to deliver aid than the World Food Programme. But the regime is fearful of allowing in hordes of foreigners from countries it blames for Burma’s problems because that would be an admission of its own failings and limitations.

General Than Shwe and the rest of the junta know they are deeply unpopular and that only fear and a sense that the army is all-powerful is what keeps the population from rising up. So large numbers of Burmese who survived the cyclone are likely to die because their government, like the regime in Zimbabwe, is really afraid of its own people.

They were dying unnecessarily, through neglect, in Burma even without a cyclone. Health care is dire. Hospitals are ill-equipped and antiquated. Parts of the country were fed by the WFP long before Nargis hit. Burmese live about 15 years less than people in Thailand or Vietnam. Not that the generals show any concern so long as they are building mansions from the profits of Burma’s natural gas.

Zimbabweans are dying in vast numbers too, with the lowest life expectancy in the world because of acute shortages of food, medicines and work, while the Zanu-PF elite enriches itself. It’s the same callous disregard for life shown by authoritarian regimes from Mobutu Sese Seko’s decades of derelict rule in Zaire to successive Nigerian military juntas that plundered billions of dollars from their nation’s vast oil wealth while its people struggled to survive. For all that, the regimes in Burma and Zimbabwe feel the need to seek legitimacy through the ballot box. The results might be rigged, but Robert Mugabe and Than Shwe still want to tell the world they are acting in the name of the people.

Burma’s junta pressed ahead with a referendum on a new constitution designed to extend military rule. Given a free vote, it’s likely that a majority of Burmese would opt to get the soldiers out of government. The army knows that and has resorted to an extensive campaign of intimidation and nationalist propaganda to win and it probably will. But for all claims to be serving the people, Zimbabweans and Burmese know that their rulers are only serving themselves. — The Guardian