Friday, May 16, 2008

Myanmar and China Disaster Reporting Contrasted

From Bad...to Bad?

[Correction: A sharp-eyed and helpful reader has pointed out that the excerpt from the Christian Science Monitor quoted below refers to aid teams from two separate Taiwanese organizations, not just Tzu Chi, as I erroneously stated. The group referenced in the first paragraph of the quote is Ling Jiou Mountain Buddhist Society. In a separate AP article, the society’s Burma-born Master Hsin Tao had some interesting things to say about the relief effort:

Myanmar, also known as Burma, has come in for heavy criticism from the international community for failing to take full advantage of food and other aid it has been offered.
...
But Hsin Tao said Myanmar's military rulers have mobilized soldiers and civilians to transport aid materials by ships or helicopters to the cyclone victims spread out along the country's west coast.


The materials include those sent in by foreign countries, he said.

"They rejected international aid workers out of distrust of the foreigners," he said. "They try to handle the relief work by themselves as much as possible because they don't have the time to deal with external criticism."

"Foreigners may not be able to conduct effective relief work because the villages are in remote areas and many bridges were swept away in the flood," he added.

Thanks again to reader KH for the information and the link.
CH 5/19/08]

The Myanmar meme in the Western press has evolved from “Myanmar isn’t letting in aid” to “Myanmar isn’t letting in aid workers”. Now another iteration is in order.

According to AP:

In a clear sign that politics is playing a role, the junta granted approval to 160 relief workers from India, China, Bangladesh and Thailand, which have rarely criticized Myanmar's democracy record.

So, it’s time for an upgrade to “Myanmar isn’t letting in Western aid workers”.

Wait a minute.

The U.N. has applied for visas for about 100 U.N. international staff in Myanmar, and close to 40 have been granted, Holmes said. International staff of non-governmental groups have obtained at least 46 visas, he said, while Myanmar's immediate neighbors -- Thailand, Bangladesh, India and China -- have been allowed to send in 160 humanitarian workers.

They are letting in Western aid workers!

There’s only one more step up the pyramid: “Myanmar isn’t letting Western aid workers with visas go to the disaster area”.

Courtesy of London’s Times, under the somewhat ungrammatical headline Burma kicks out aid foreign workers:

The Burmese authorities have sealed off the cyclone disaster zone from the outside world, expelling foreign aid workers and placing multiple checkpoints along roads into the Irrawaddy delta, to the despair of foreign diplomats and aid workers.

There. All better!

But that’s still not the whole story:

One British NGO (non-governmental organisation), the medical charity Merlin, has been allowed to keep a foreign presence in the southwestern city of Labutta, where the organisation had a longstanding project. The rest, including UN organisations such as the World Food Programme and UN Development Programme, must rely on their Burmese staff.

So, it looks like the indictment of the Myanmar regime will have to read: “Myanmar isn’t allowing certain aid workers affiliated with organizations without an existing local presence to go to the disaster area”.

Despite the heroic efforts of the Western press, it looks like the “missing aid worker” angle might be put to bed pretty soon.

It’s a good thing, because the whole idea that Western aid workers are indispensable to disaster relief in the initial rescue period (and their absence is evidence of criminal and callous incompetence by the government of the afflicted region) is wrong and misleading, as well as something of an insult to the local people and organizations who, in any disaster, provide the bulk of first-responder disaster relief.

Let’s see how the Times throws a little condescending love their way:

Many of them are well trained and competent but, according to aid workers in Rangoon, experienced foreign experts are also required to oversee logistical planning and to operate technical imported equipment such as water purification plants.

In addition to “well trained and competent”, how about “skilled, dedicated, and armed with an intimate knowledge of local conditions and immense reservoirs of experience and tact in dealing with local institutions”.

How about “willing to risk their lives and their health working incomprehensibly long hours trying to save their neighbors”.

And how about “can speak the frikkin’ local language and can walk up to someone and get something done without convening the UN Security Council and a Berlitz seminar”.

Anyway.

But even if the ability of local organizations and foreign NGOs to mount a disaster relief operation without the guidance of Western aid workers is ever conceded, Burma-bashing headline writers will always be able to find grist for the mill:

Courtesy of the AP, the scare headline:

Some cholera confirmed in cyclone-hit Myanmar

But the article goes on to say:

"We don't have an explosion of cholera. Thus far the rate of cholera is no greater than the background rate that we would be seeing in Myanmar during this season," [WHO representative Maureen Birmingham] said.

Wow. What a ... non-story.

And, if the Myanmar government is hoping that a stage-managed tour of the delta will demonstrate to the West that it has the situation in hand, well, don’t be surprised if Western perceptions of its performance continue to run the gamut from incompetence to outright deceit:

Some foreign diplomats have also been invited by the regime to visit the delta on Saturday, said Shari Villarosa, the top U.S. diplomat in Yangon. She did not provide details.It is not clear how much access the diplomats will have outside the conducted tour.

Still, it will be the first time diplomats will be seeing first hand the effects of the cyclone as well as the highly criticized relief delivery effort by the government.

Don’t get me wrong. Myanmar governmental disaster relief is probably worse than most. But the disaster is worse than most. And the time when foreign supplies and aid workers can play a really meaningful role is during the recovery and reconstruction stage--which is starting now.

Complaining about the alleged shortcomings of the junta during the initial rescue and relief stage is not helping one little bit.

The real story of what’s going on there should probably be:

Inadequate Myanmar government disaster response exacerbated by resistance of UN and Western NGOs and governments to providing unconditional aid to despised regime. Observers expect Western withholding of aid to continue, demands for intrusive and unnecessary access to intensify, and criticism of government to escalate during recovery and reconstruction phase of cyclone relief when problems of relief can be blamed on the incompetence and corruption of the Myanmar government instead of the magnitude of the natural disaster. Thousands suffer and die as West exploits crisis in attempt to bring junta to heel.

But that doesn’t make for a punchy, informative headline.

You know, like:

Burma refuses aid

We might have an effective Myanmar policy—one that doesn’t force it even deeper into China’s sphere of influence--if accurate reporting allowed us to understand the weaknesses, strengths, and priorities of the regime in light of the challenge of Cyclone Nargis and design a joint response to the disaster.

But based on the instinctive and intellectually lazy junta bashing in the Western press encouraged by the posturing of the US, UK, and France, I’m not holding my breath.

In the credit where credit is due department, however, I would like to acknowledge an interesting and informative report by the Christian Science Monitor concerning the effectiveness of Asian NGOs in Burma, focusing on a Taiwan Buddhist organization, Tzu Chi, that operates both in Myanmar and in the PRC:

Yet as Western relief workers waited anxiously in Rangoon and outside Burma, a team of Taiwanese aid workers arrived in Rangoon to deliver emergency food and discuss further assistance with Burmese authorities. Headed by a Burmese-born Taiwanese monk whose foundation runs charities in Burma, the group carried in nine tons of aid, among the first such deliveries. A second three-ton airlift is due Friday.
...
The Tzu Chi Foundation, the largest NGO in the Chinese-speaking world and a rising player in global disaster relief, has sent 15 volunteers from neighboring countries to Burma to work with more than 100 local staff to distribute aid, says Her Rey-Sheng, a spokesman for the group and a full-time volunteer.


Tzu Chi also got permission this week to set up a distribution center at a Buddhist temple in Rangoon and work with monks there. It's planning a fund-raising drive for reconstruction projects.

But this kind of reporting is still the exception rather than the rule.

The Myanmar government is certainly noting the contrast in coverage of the horrific Chinese earthquake.

Certainly nothing along the lines of “China refuses to admit foreign aid workers”, although to date it has only allowed in one team from Japan and declined offers from South Korea and Australia, stating that the relief effort needs supplies only.

And not too much about “Official corruption and shoddy construction turned schools into death traps”, though I have a feeling that will come up later.

One reason is undoubtedly that Western reporters, instead of sitting in hotel lobbies listening to NGO staffers bitch about the godawful regime, have been on the scene and caught up in the heroic narrative of cataclysm, rescue, tragedy, hope, and the desperate race against time.

And I have a feeling that China’s managed junket to the disaster area will yield better press than Myanmar’s.

Observe China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Qin Gang’s assiduous stroking as the foreign press champs at the bit in Beijing to cover the story:

Q: The Foreign Ministry is organizing foreign journalists for field report. What is China's purpose of organizing this trip within a couple of days after the earthquake?

A: You are right in saying that we are to arrange a batch of foreign journalists to cover the disaster. And this is because we keep receiving such demands from foreign journalists. We fully understand your feelings. Time, for rescue work, means life; for journalists, means news and efficiency. That's why we have exerted great efforts and overcome various difficulties to make this happen. Despite the hardship in the afflicted area with infrastructure including transportation and communication seriously destroyed, we had timely and effective consultation with local authorities, and conveyed your aspiration to them. We are glad to be able to make the arrangement within a short period of time.

As a matter of fact, there are already quite a few foreign media working in the field, the initial statistics say there are 35. Our relevant departments are ready to help you with your work, and we hope that your report will help the international community see the real situation in the disaster area, the efforts of the Chinese Government and people, the entire Chinese nation fighting together in a unified dedication to save people's lives, and also many countries' support and assistance to us.

The situation in the disaster area is very difficult. For journalists heading there, I wish you success with your work, and please take care of yourselves. In case of any difficulty or emergency, don't hesitate to contact our colleagues from the Foreign Ministry and the local governments. They are ready at all times to provide you with necessary and timely assistance and help. [emph. added]

Yeah, don’t hurt yourself tripping over any corpses while you’re rushing to file.

Actually, I’ve got a hot story for Western newsies in China. And you’re right on top of it!

Here it is: Chinese government cynically diverts precious disaster relief facilities to arrange unnecessary junket for scoop-hungry foreign journalists to death zone in order to obtain favorable coverage!

Wonder when we’ll read about that in the papers.

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