Details of the earthquake that struck Burma on Sunday morning are still sketchy. Various initial death tolls are relatively low (between four and twelve) but the true extent of damage is likely to be far worse; at 6.8 magnitude it is larger than the quake that devastated Christchurch last year, and Burma’s emergency infrastructure is nowhere near that of New Zealand’s. Ominously the epicentre lies near to Mandaly, a city of over one million people second only in size to Rangoon. Tremors were felt as far away and Bangkok and at least two strong aftershocks have been reported.
As things pan out in the comings hours and days the earthquake may represent the biggest test yet for President Thein Sein’s reformist USDP government. Just over four years ago, when Cyclone Nargis decimated Burma’s Irrawaddy Delta region, the military government in which Thein Sein served, covered up early warnings then flagrantly lied about the scale of the disaster once it hit.
As the floods, death and disease spread, they exacerbated the problem further by physically blocking the delivery of relief, expelling aid workers and seizing a large proportion of any assistance that was able to get through. In a fit of paranoia and callousness the regime refused entry foreign to boats full of food and medical supplies, leaving the international community to seriously consider flying unauthorised military aid drops to the desperate population.
Of the 140 000 who died, many were direct victims of the regime’s actions: a Crime Against Humanity in most eyes.
The response to Sunday’s earthquake then, is a chance for Thein Sein’s new administration to prove that things have really changed. Accurate information about the impact, dedication of resources towards relief and unhindered access for external agencies are nothing short of essential if the President is to prove that his is a government serious about taking Burma forward.
Two years into the reform process serious doubts continue to linger about its authenticity. Despite significant political prisoner releases, fair by-elections and the easing of censorship, several familiar dictatorial traits remain. The ongoing military attacks against civilians in Kachin State, the 238 political prisoners still behind bars, and the abhorrent sectarian attacks stirred up by the government in Arakan State have led many commentators both inside and outside Burma to question just how much things have really progressed.
The official response to this natural disaster may go some way to providing an answer.