BANGKOK, Thailand – Let's hear it for freedom of speech! Tibet, Zimbabwe and now Myanmar are all refusing access to journalists who want to report on the hardships of their people.
In Tibet, the Chinese are clamping down in fear that unrest will spoil the summer Olympics in Beijing; Tibetans complain of beatings and killings. In Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe is hanging on grimly, trying to overthrow an apparent election loss by subterfuge and violence, after running his country into the ground for twenty years. And in Myanmar, after 46 years of iron rule by a military junta, the generals wants to stop outsiders from witnessing the devastation of Cyclone Nargis. They're afraid of a threat to their power.
As a journalist who has tried to enter each of these places in the last three months and failed – my heart goes out to the citizens under stress, whose stories I would dearly like to tell, in the hope some good would come of it.
But my predominant emotion is thanks to the world into which I was fortunate enough to be born. My world has enough food and my vote is a force that cannot be changed, unlike Zimbabwe; I can say what I like, unlike in Tibet; and I know I can count on my government in case of a natural disaster, unlike in Myanmar.
Aid not reaching those who need it
As I write, more natural disasters are unfolding: in China, a severe earthquake has buried hundreds of schoolchildren and killed thousands of people – with fears that the death toll could climb sharply. The United States is just recovering from a tornado and deaths in Missouri, Oklahoma and Georgia. How basic it seems for citizens to expect help, and indeed American and Chinese authorities have rushed to the aid of their victims.
And how hard it is to imagine a place like Myanmar where the government prefers to hold a referendum on a constitution rather than delay it in order to help the victims of the cyclone. Girls danced and balloons were released into the air to celebrate the vote.
One British television correspondent working undercover in Myanmar reported that local citizens he spoke to thought that about 1,000 of their countrymen had died in the cyclone; that's what they were being told by their own media. Foreign aid officials believe the toll of dead or missing may be as high as 100,000, and many more could die from disease due to lack of clean water, food and medical supplies. The British aid organization Oxfam warned that 1.5 million survivors face death from disease and starvation.
Aid is beginning to reach the hungry, thirsty, sick survivors, but at this point, it has been over a week since the cyclone hit.
Imagine huddling under a tree with dozens of others, your back flayed open by the whipping leaves and branches in the water, and there's no medication; the wind is severe and it's raining hard, you're hungry and there's no food, and the only water to drink is the floodwater that surrounds you, which is polluted by the corpses of humans and animals bobbing around you. Your children are crying and the old people are sick. And you look into the sky for planes or across the water for rescue boats, and they both stretch to the horizon and are empty.
That's the situation described by aid officials who are frustrated beyond comprehension at the obstructive response of the Myanmar government.