HONOLULU (May 23, 2008)—The natural disasters that swept through Burma and western China in recent weeks throw into sharp relief the humanitarian, physical and even political challenges facing the region today, a panel of East-West Center experts said here this week.


In striking ways, the aftermath of the cyclone in Burma and the earthquake in China offers contrasting views of how tightly controlled Asian governments deal both with their own internal problems and with the rest of the world.

But whether it’s China, Burma or other countries, such disasters demonstrate how often lessons are not learned, according to Center Senior Fellow Allen Clark, a specialist in disaster planning and response. What is happening in Burma and in China has happened before and will likely happen again, Clark said.

“These patterns (of failed response and lack of preparation) don’t just happen in the Irrawaddy and in Chengdu,” Clark said. “They happened in New Orleans as well.”

In addition to Clark, the panel included Research Director Nancy Lewis, an expert on public health issues, Center President Charles E. Morrison and Senior Fellow Shabbir Cheema, who spent many years as a United Nations program director.

Western governments and citizens horrified by the scale of the disaster in Burma were understandably frustrated by the initial reluctance of local authorities to accept outside help, Cheema said.

That may in part be explained by a cultural gulf and differences in political systems that in some ways continue to divide Asia from the West, he said. It is a gulf that China is rapidly learning to bridge, while the leadership in Burma has not, he said.

This raises a fundamental question that he often struggled with during his years at the U.N., Cheema said: “How do you strike a balance between the need to protect life and (ease) the suffering of the people and at the same time ensure that the sovereignty of the country is protected?”

Until the time when a nation is comfortable with its own security and sovereignty, Cheema suggested, the task of providing large-scale outside aid in an emergency setting will continue to be difficult.

“There are universal values we want to subscribe to – the value of human life – but there is also the question of the sovereignty of the country. If you break down the sovereignty principle, the world would be in a much bigger mess than it is today,” he said.

The contrast between the ways rapidly changing China and isolationist Burma have responded to their tragedies illustrates how that sovereignty problem can be resolved.

China, Cheema suggested, is rapidly becoming sure enough of its own place in the world to accept international help, while Burma has yet to reach that level of comfort.

“Providing assistance in this kind of situation, particularly in a totalitarian situation, is extremely difficult,” he said. “But a totalitarian regime with internal capacity and with a forward, outward-looking leadership can respond.”

Lewis noted that China’s response was different in part because the underlying conditions in the two countries are markedly different, particularly when it comes to health status.

In everything from levels of inoculation to the basic health of the population (as measured by life expectancy), China is ahead of the game compared with Burma, Lewis said.

The biggest health concern that divides victims of disaster in China from those in Burma, Lewis said, is food. The ravaged portions of the delta area in Burma normally produce the bulk of that nation’s food supplies – including fully 60 percent of its rice crop – but that has all been destroyed by the storm.

“The future food security issue for Myanmar is very serious indeed,” Lewis said. (Myanmar is the name given to Burma by the country’s military government, but never recognized by many nations, including the U.S.)

And the food issue, said Cheema, is where the international community must continue to press officials in Burma to open up to international help. Even after the immediate humanitarian crisis is dealt with, he said, the country will need vast amounts of help to rebuild and recover.

“The real crisis comes after (the immediate situation) when you go to rehabilitation,” Cheema said. “It is at that time that the world community loses interest.”

And even as much of the world looks away, those who still wish to help often feel frustrated and thwarted.

“The bad news is that the ability of the international community to decisively respond to these crises is very limited,” he said. “While some, particularly the Europeans, believe that it is the obligation of the international community to act when a country is unable to help itself, others – particularly in Asia – resist any hint of forced intervention.”

Morrison said that’s a matter of deep frustration for American officials who know they have the military and logistical ability to help, and are willing to do so just as they did in previous disasters in Bangladesh in the early 1990s and after the 2004 Asian tsunami.

“From a humanitarian point of view, it becomes tremendously frustrating, even if we can understand (the resistance) intellectually,” he said.
Disasters come and go, and yet the same patterns continue to emerge. Disaster specialist Allen Clark notes these grimly familiar lessons learned, or more accurately lessons re-learned following the cyclone in Burma and the earthquake in China:


  • All nations are ill prepared, to a greater or lesser degree, for major disasters.
  • Early warning systems are inadequate.
  • The most immediate response is almost always from local people – “you are on your own.”
  • The greatest deficiency is lack of “lifting” capacity, which means helicopters.
  • Women and children are most at risk; they tend to be concentrated while men are scattered at work or elsewhere.
  • Schools are universally at risk and are usually not constructed to withstand severe trauma.
  • Clean water and shelter are imperatives.
  • Health care, hospitals and medical supplies are often inadequate for disaster situations.
  • Assistance often is not prioritized according to need (age, gender, physical state, coping capacity).



The EAST-WEST CENTER is an education and research organization established by the U.S. Congress in 1960 to strengthen relations and understanding among the peoples and nations of Asia, the Pacific, and the United States. The Center contributes to a peaceful, prosperous and just Asia Pacific community by serving as a vigorous hub for cooperative research, education and dialogue on critical issues of common concern to the Asia Pacific region and the United States. Funding for the Center comes from the U.S. government, with additional support provided by private agencies, individuals, foundations, corporations and the governments of the region.


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