Media playing dictators’ game

Simon Jenkins

Two dictators face two disasters, one is in China, the other in Burma. One is an earthquake, the other a flood. Tens of thousands are dead and millions at risk. Being dictatorial, both regimes responded in a manner heavy with the politics of sovereignty. In one case that helps people, in the other it kills them. Natural disasters are the world’s greatest murderers after war and disease. Nature does not do revenge (as far as we know), but it leaves humanity to do mercy and recuperation. How humanity performs that task is the test of civilisation.

China’s response to the Sichuan earthquake contrasts so glaringly with previous responses that I am inclined to revise my view of the Olympics: perhaps they should always be held in dictatorships. After the shambles of the world torch tour, the handling of the earthquake has been a political coup. Inviting the media to the scene was fairly low risk. An earthquake is one big bang and, with the entire Red Army available, a rescue is a rescue. The world has fallen in love with trapped Chinese, tearful Chinese, heroic Chinese, efficient Chinese. A nation often portrayed as a massive monotony is revealed for the first time as composed of sensitive humans. Tibet and the torch have been forgotten and the Olympics shifted from obscene accolade to worthy reward. China is overnight OK. It leads the news.

Poor little Burma. Its disaster is far greater and its deaths possibly four times worse than China’s. As the head of the Merlin relief agency, Sean Keogh, said on the radio on May 20, “such an epic calamity would test the reserves of any nation”, none more so than Burma’s. Unlike China, with the Olympics in the offing, Burma’s regime has no interest in publicity. Under economic sanctions since 1991, its narrative to its people is that the outside world, especially the west, is the cause of all their woes.

They can be saved only by the omnipotent, self-styled State Law and Order Restoration Council (Orwellian acronym, SLORC). That Burma should need foreign help, let alone from foreign soldiers, destroys that narrative. It is anathema.

The world and its media are playing the dictators’ game. They are doing exactly what the Chinese regime wants, and exactly what the Burmese regime wants. They are giving inordinate coverage to every crushed Sichuan school-child and ignoring two million Burmese. In China the victim is the story. In Burma it is the awfulness of the regime. The media salves its conscience, as do politicians, by stressing the “urgency” of the catastrophe and callousness

of the generals. It regards that as its job well done.

I have no desire to fight, let alone topple, the Burmese generals. I do not believe, if aid pallets

were airlifted ashore, the regime’s pitiful force in the delta would dare attack them, and would expect air cover if they tried. Nor do I care what the Chinese or Thais say about the matter. This has nothing to do with the fate of the generals, rather with that of the hundreds of thousands of human beings whom they have left to die. We cannot save lives in China, but we can in Burma. We choose not to do so because the Burmese regime has successfully choked the conduit that motivates humanitarian intervention, publicity. Burma is not on television. That is civilisation for you.