Page last updated at 16:51 GMT, Tuesday, 13 May 2008 17:51 UK

Two disasters, contrasting reactions

By Bridget Kendall
Diplomatic correspondent, BBC News

Two powerful natural disasters, wreaking havoc through large swathes of territory.

Burmese children beg for food in Rangoon - 13/5/2008
Aid has been slow to reach Burmese due to restrictions on foreign help

Two Asian countries reeling from the horror of tens of thousands of people probably dead and hundreds of thousands more made destitute and homeless.

And two governments, one a military junta and the other a Communist oligarchy, both traditionally suspicious of outside intervention.

But what a contrast between the different ways they are handling their situations.

Since the cyclone that hit Burma on 3 May, the government there has been wary of giving access to outsiders, sluggish in its own response and reluctant to contemplate flexibility.

From the outset the military regime allowed in only a small percentage of the relief experts who were needed to assess the devastation and set up supply routes to reach survivors.

Journalists, usually welcomed in such circumstances so the world knows what is happening, have had to slip in incognito.

Immediate offers of airlifts and naval support from as far afield as the United States were greeted with hesitation.

And even when shipments were grudgingly accepted, government spokesmen tried to insist that while aid was welcome, foreign aid workers were not and the Burmese army could manage without them.

Burmese soldiers next to emergency shelters in Dedaya - 13/5/2008
The Burmese army was notably absent in the days following the cyclone

Yet the immensity of the tragedy seems to be far beyond the means of the Burmese themselves.

In some places lucky survivors appeared to have been the recipients of government dispersed tents.

But elsewhere snatched glimpses of bloated bodies left floating in flooded paddy fields, and pictures of soldiers at Rangoon airport unloading aid sacks by hand sent an eloquent signal that this inward-looking regime was ill-equipped to cope with the scale and urgency of such a monumental disaster.

People, it seems, are not the first priority.

A referendum to adapt the country's constitution went ahead as planned on Saturday, except in the inundated areas of the Irrawaddy Delta.

Maintaining a firm political grip on the country, it seems, is more important to the Burmese generals than meeting the desperate needs of some of their own citizens.

Swift action

Compare that to the response of the Communist government in China to this week's catastrophic earthquake, where the government has sent the message it is prepared to be swift, flexible and surprisingly open.

Within hours the prime minister was on a plane to the region, and Chinese state television, not known for its quick response to emergencies, was rolling with a special disaster programme.

China's Prime Minister Wen Jiabao (left, with megaphone) at a collapsed hospital in Dujiangyan - 12/5/2008
China's premier (left) flew to the scene within hours of the earthquake

Pictures of collapsed buildings and trapped survivors have sped around the world.

Some foreign journalists have been able to get to the region to send eyewitness reports.

In contrast to Burma's inflexibility over its referendum plans, in China a swift decision was taken to scale down ceremonies surrounding the once controversial Olympic torch relay and add a daily minute of silence, out of respect for the victims.

As for offers of outside help, there has been an official welcome for the pledges of relief that have been pouring in.

And even if, like Burma, the Chinese government has stopped short of accepting disaster relief workers, it has moved fast to announce it is mobilising its own considerable resources into what appears to be an impressive rescue mission.

Tens of thousands of Chinese police and soldiers have been making their way to the disaster zone by truck, plane, parachute and some even on foot.

How effective they will be in managing this disaster will no doubt emerge in the next few days and weeks.

Whether outsiders - journalists and aid workers - will continue to be allowed near the disaster area remains a question.

Already the Chinese foreign ministry is warning that foreign journalists may be kept away from the earthquake zone "for their own safety".

But at the very least, the Chinese government clearly wants to demonstrate to its own people - and to the outside world - that it can cope, and that it cares for its citizens' welfare.

Different pattern

To be fair, though the scale of the two disasters is perhaps comparable, the logistical problems thrown up by a cyclone and a tidal surge versus the upheaval caused by a major earthquake in heavily populated areas are difficult to equate.

And even if one could, the sheer size and wealth of China, and the resilience of its infrastructure in comparison to Burma meant it was always going to be in a better position to shoulder the burden locally.

But what is particularly striking is how different this week's reaction in China is from its own inadequate response to disasters in the past, and from the other ways in which it tries to hide sensitive political information.

Chinese soldiers help a civilian up a collapsed road in Beichuan county, Sichuan province - 13/5/2008
The Chinese army was quickly mobilised to help earthquake victims

Its slow and secretive handling of the outbreak of Sars (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) in 2003 led to accusations of a cover up, even though it claimed it was trying to avoid a mass panic about a medical outbreak.

In 2005 when an explosion at a petrochemical factory contaminated a river supplying the northern city of Harbin, the Chinese authorities were severely criticised for failing to own up to the disaster quickly enough.

Yet now it seems that a different pattern is emerging.

Earlier this year when millions of Chinese were stranded by ice and heavy snow in the worst winter storms in decades, the authorities again moved swiftly to try to get on top of the emergency.

Hundreds of thousands of troops were deployed and easing the crisis was declared a number one priority.

Whether because the eyes of the world are upon it in this Olympic year, or because the Chinese themselves, particularly the increasingly affluent and empowered urban middle class, demand more of their own government, these days in China - unlike in Burma - there seems to be a greater sense of the need to be accountable.

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