A fortnight after Japan was convulsed by multiple disasters, Myanmar has been shaken by a powerful earthquake, 6.8 on the Richter scale.
The quake’s epicentre was along the Myanmar-Thailand border. Since it was inland, there is no threat of a tsunami. Official estimates peg the death toll at 75 but this could be higher as the damage in interior parts of the country is yet to be assessed. More importantly, Myanmar’s government is known to diminish the magnitude of its people’s sufferings. Comparisons between the quakes in Japan and Myanmar are inevitable and these will prompt many to quickly conclude that the devastation from the latter is not that serious. Indeed, the Myanmar quake is of far less intensity to the 8.9 tremor that rocked Japan. Besides, the horror in Japan was wrought not so much by the earthquake as by the tsunami and then the nuclear crisis that followed. Fortunately, Myanmar has escaped both.
However, this must not lead the international community to conclude that Myanmar does not need help. It does. Its capacity for rescue and relief is minimal as will be its ability to rebuild and reconstruct. Myanmar is among the poorest countries in the world. Its economy is in a shambles thanks to the flawed policies of its military rulers and the impact of ill-conceived economic sanctions imposed by the West. Besides, the country is yet to recover from the devastation unleashed by Cyclone Nargis in May 2008. Around 1,38,000 people were killed in that disaster, the worst ever to hit Myanmar. It is believed that much of the aid that poured into Myanmar in the aftermath of Nargis did not reach the victims but went into the personal pockets of the generals. With this, Myanmar’s junta reaffirmed that they cared little for the people. A similar response from the government now could amplify the damage done by the quake.
Myanmar’s new government takes charge later this week. Although a supposedly ‘elected’ government, it is dominated by the military. How it responds to the quake disaster will be closely watched now. It has a chance to show that it is a responsive and responsible government. Several countries including India have promised humanitarian and other help. The government must ensure that these reach the intended beneficiaries. Inept handling of a natural disaster could prove catastrophic.