Faced with China's biggest earthquake in 32 years, the ruling Communist Party has acted as swiftly and openly as its ally Burma, facing a death toll of at least 32,000, has not. Soon after the quake hit south-west China, killing more than 10,000 in Sichuan province alone, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was filmed directing rescue efforts.
In Burma, 11 days after Cyclone Nargis, hundreds of thousands have been left to die after their rulers refused to allow aid into the country. Instead, says David Aaronovitch in The Times, the Burmese military regime chose to go ahead at the weekend with its rigged nationwide referendum to legitimise its hold on power.
If ever so-called humanitarian intervention were justified, it is now, says Simon Jenkins in The Guardian. Ships, planes, supplies and doctors are waiting offshore, with "no intention of toppling any regime". Some 1.5 million people in the Irrawaddy delta, abandoned without shelter, food or clean water, now face starvation, dysentery and a possible cholera epidemic.
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Yet legal experts have been working "overtime to justify not sending relief into Burma", asserting that the UN's responsibility to protect' principle meant only in cases of genocide, ethic cleansing and crimes against humanity', rather than deliberate negligence after a natural disaster. "All the UN's fine print" was not needed for intervention in Kosovo in 1998, nor to topple the Taliban or Saddam Hussein. "Offending national sovereignty is apparently fine when it involves oil, opium, Islam or a macho yearning to boast regime change'."
To argue that sovereignty is the reason why nothing can be done is to let this "foul regime get away with mass murder", says Rosemary Righter in The Times. Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign minister and founder of Mdecins Sans Frontiers, has called on the Security Council to insist on humanitarian access to Burma, citing the "right to intervene" in catastrophic situations, accepted by the General Assembly in the 1990s.
But governments must act with or without approval. Governments airlifted aid to fleeing Kurds in northern Iraq in 1991 without the approval of Saddam Hussein or the Security Council. The important thing is to get aid through now: as the experience of the 2004 tsunami showed, every hour costs lives.
It's already too late, says Aaronovitch. The way Burma has reacted is entirely consistent with its crazy, authoritarian administration. "The issue isn't whether we have the right to intervene, but whether or not we practically can." Everything else is "polite conversation". Whether aid gets through or not, the cyclone has changed the political landscape, says Aung Zaw, an exiled Burmese activist, in The Guardian. It may be "wishful thinking" to suggest that General Than Shwe's days are numbered, but "political unrest and growing calls for humanitarian intervention will continue to haunt Burma's incompetent military leaders".
Sadly, those calls have been rather drowned out by the reporting of China's earthquake, says Jenkins. Sickening though it is, the Burmese cyclone has already "slid into liberal interventionism's recycle bin, a purgatory called Mere Abuse".
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