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Unnatural disasters


US President George Bush made the most outrageously hypocritical statement recently while being filmed at the White House. Having just come from the US Congress where Burmese/Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi had been awarded in absentia the Congressional Medal of Honour, in the footsteps of Tony Blair and the Dalai Lama, he sang her praises as "this brave woman".

Bush then went on to scold the Burmese government and proceeded to insist that "Burma must accept US aid on US terms delivered by the US military" following the destruction of the Irrawaddy Delta by Cyclone Nargis. When Myanmar did not accept these conditions, it was subjected to a hysterical campaign of hostility, accusing it of not caring about its own people. The Myanmar government might well have been remembering previous US aid to countries that would not bend the knee to its power.

Particularly, Mozambique comes to mind. In 1983 after one million people had died at the hands of Rhodesian-backed RENAMO forces and the rest of the country faced starvation due to famine. The Mozambique government asked the United Nations for urgent food aid (the US being the largest provider of food aid in the United Nations), saying that if pledges were insufficient thousands would die. And 100,000 died.

And what did the US do? In what is probably the most blatant example of a powerful country using a disaster to expand its political power, remembered by many countries, the US refused to provide food aid until Mozambique showed some "distance" from the Soviet Union, stopped voting against them at the UN, took all reference to socialism out of its constitution, shared power with RENAMO, and started a process of privatisation. All aid was to be distributed by religious NGOs. Mozambique had no alternative but to accept.

But to put this case in contrast, we need to remember Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed New Orleans in 2006. How long was it before Bush actually got around to visiting the scene of the disaster? And how effective was the US government in providing relief to its own citizens? In contrast to the tardy and disorganised shambles that deepened the agony of New Orleans, neighbouring Cuba – the morning after the Hurricane hit – offered to send a brigade of 1,500 doctors and skilled disaster experts to the city to save lives. The US State Department refused the offer and the rest, as they say, is history.

Is it any wonder, then, that the Myanmar government accepted aid from its friends – mainly India, Thailand and China plus the UN, while only accepting US aid on its own conditions?