More than a month after Cyclone Nargis hit Burma, as many as 2½ million people were still utterly destitute, with no homes, (often no villages), severely limited access to food, water or medicines, and no prospect of the situation changing soon. Officially nearly 80,000 were dead and 60,000 missing, but the shocking indifference of the Burmese state to what had happened to the millions caught in the mud and mire means that the real figures could be almost anything, certainly much more.
The military clique of Than Shwe, at the heart of the Burmese state, was an easy target for governments around the world. These hardline ‘Stalino-Buddhists' said they would accept foreign aid, but not foreign rescue workers. They showed little interest in the plight of the population, being far more concerned at getting constitutional amendments ratified by a referendum that clocked up 93% in favour. After less than four weeks they started evicting families from relief camps, because they didn't want them to become permanent, even though there was nowhere obvious for them to go after the tents were taken away. They continued to harass opposition figures. They used refugees to build labour camps. They kept for themselves some of what little aid was allowed through.
All such criticisms were true, except that in the mouths of leading figures from some of the major imperialist powers they were used as grounds to threaten a ‘humanitarian' invasion of the country. The French foreign minister suggested using the UN's "responsibility to protect" as a cover for the ‘international community' to go into the country without clearing it with the Burmese state. He cited the availability of nearby French, Indian and British warships. The fact that the US has substantial forces in Thailand, as well as the aircraft carriers Kitty Hawk and Nimitz, and other warships, was a more direct way of making the same threat. It was clear that the US wanted to act on its own and not bother with the UN route.
There are some leftists who think that the Burmese state is defensible - some even describe it as a ‘deformed workers' state'! In the rest of the political spectrum the Stalinist nature of the military leaders is cited as the reason for their callous behaviour. Others have said that they are paranoid or just mad. After all Than Shwe did order that the capital be moved from Rangoon and built in Naypyidaw partly on the advice of astrologers.
The reality is more prosaic. That Burmese capitalism is more overtly repressive, and the military more prominent in the state apparatus than many others, is a reflection of its great economic weakness. But neither this, nor some of the more bizarre habits of its leaders, stop it from being a society based on capitalist exploitation.
China shows its ‘better self'?
Another country with a Stalinist state, China, has also recently suffered a catastrophic disaster, the earthquake in the Sichuan province which affected more than 15 million people, and in which more then 70,000 died.
The contrast with the situation in Burma was dramatic. There was a massive mobilisation by the state, including 130,000 troops. For a period of time there was a lot of open reporting in the Chinese media on what was happening. President Hu Jintao expressed his thanks for all the international aid, and for help from rescue teams from South Korea, Singapore, Russia, Japan and even Taiwan. The government said it would crack down on any corruption linked to relief supplies. With at least 3 million homes destroyed and another 12 million damaged there are 5 million homeless - the state hopes to get a million temporary housing units up within 3 months.
Countries in the west have also praised, rather than criticised the actions of the Chinese capitalist state: "This represents a model for other countries to follow"(US Assistant Secretary of State David Kramer), "A nation confronts a tragedy and finds its better self"(a Time magazine front cover), "Quake reveals softer side to China" (BBC website headline).
This lack of criticism might seem surprising. After all, there have been many protests throughout Sichuan at the evidence of a lot of substandard construction work. This becomes even more obvious when you compare the hundreds of schools that collapsed, killing thousands of children, with the government buildings that are still standing. There are also a nuclear research reactor, two nuclear fuel production sites and two nuclear weapon facilities (of which we know little) in the earthquake zone, and a number of hastily constructed dams which are already at risk of collapse, an eventuality that could result in disastrous floods.
A key difference between Burma and China is that the latter is an enormous investment market for the most developed countries and the former is negligible. What would be the point of ruffling Chinese feathers when the Beijing Olympics, that great festival of commerce, is just round the corner? And alongside the purely economic considerations are the ‘diplomatic' issues - in other words the efforts of the different imperialist powers to increase their influence with the Chinese ruling class, and their own conflicts with China over their positions in Asia and the Pacific. Despite competition between the US, France, Germany, Russia, and others over the spoils of this region, they seem to be agreed for the moment that it's in everyone's interest not to use the earthquake to provoke further disorder in the world imperialist chessboard.
In any case, the real humanitarian credentials of those who criticise the Burmese junta for its appalling response to the cyclone are easily unmasked. It is not so easy to erase the memory of how the richest and most powerful state in the world, the USA, effectively abandoned millions of its most deprived citizens to hunger, thirst and disease in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.