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Two natural disasters, two different responsesBy EDITH M. LEDERER / AP WRITER / UNITED NATIONS
Two natural disasters in tightly controlled Asian nations have produced two very different responses: Burma's very slow response to Cyclone Nargis has sparked international outrage while China's speedy reaction to a killer earthquake has won international admiration.
Burma's military government, which has ruled with an iron first since 1962, has barred almost all foreign experts experienced in managing humanitarian crises, saying it would handle relief efforts on its own.
But without equipment to even lift cargo off Boeing 747s and at least 1.5 million people left homeless or in need, the UN warned Tuesday that Burma faces a monumental catastrophe unless relief efforts reach the scale of the response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
China's communist government also said it was not allowing foreign aid workers into the area affected by Monday's 7.9-magnitude earthquake which wrecked towns across hilly stretches of Sichuan province though it would accept international aid for the tens of thousands left homeless.
But in contrast to Burma, China's government quickly moved into high-gear, sending 20,000 soldiers and police into the disaster area with 30,000 more on the way by plane, train, truck and on foot because roads were impassable. The government was also mobilizing food, clothes, tents and plastic sheeting for the victims and sent Premier Wen Jiabao to oversee relief efforts and comfort victims.
China's leaders appeared intent on reassuring the Chinese people and the world that they were in control of the biggest disaster to strike the country in three decades, and were ready for the August 8-24 Olympics in Beijing.The death toll in China's earthquake topped 12,000 with up to 18,000 people believed trapped in rubble.
The death toll in the May 3 cyclone that devastated Burma's Irrawaddy delta was put by the government at over 34,000, with nearly 28,000 missing. The UN said between 62,000 and 100,000 could have died.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Monday sharply criticized Burma's military junta, whose leader Snr-Gen Than Shwe has refused to take his calls, expressing "deep concern and immense frustration" at "the unacceptably slow response to this grave humanitarian crisis." on Tuesday, Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman for the UN Office for Humanitarian Affairs, followed up saying: "We fear a second catastrophe unless we're able to put in place quickly a maximum of aid and a major logistical effort comparable with the response to the tsunami."
UN spokeswoman Michele Montas was asked Tuesday whether the secretary-general was concerned that China has not yet said what kind of help the UN could provide to the earthquake victims.
"I don't think he is that concerned because so far, he doesn't have any reports that aid is not reaching the survivors and that the survivors are not being taken care of," she replied. "I think his concern was about the situation in Myanmar [Burma], because of the fact that people were not receiving aid."
Britain's UN Ambassador John Sawers, asked Tuesday whether Britain was concerned that China also is not allowing foreign aid workers into the country, said "I think the two situations are different."
"I think China has reacted very promptly to the appalling disaster ... and I think the political attention, the rapid response, has been admirable," he said.
"The situation in Burma is very, very different," Sawers said. "There, the scale of the disaster is a whole lot greater.
The risk of water-borne disease, lack of clean sanitation— all these problems are going to escalate over the days to come."
He warned that "the death toll can double or more because of the lack of basic health care facilities and clean water and food and shelter—and with heavy rains expected in southern Burma in the days ahead that can only make things even worse."
The secretary-general, Sawers, and US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad all expressed concern at reports that desperately needed food and aid from the UN and other organizations that has arrived in Burma is being diverted to non-cyclone victims, though no one had independent evidence.
Sawers said the reports underline the need for the Myanmar government to accept that it does not have the capacity to distribute aid to 1.5 million people.
"This is not a slight on Burma," he said. "No country of that size could cope with delivering aid to 1.5 million people."