FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno () - May 20, 2008 - 12:00am

For many days now, we watched with horror as rescue teams tried to save lives in two awesome calamities that took the lives of tens of thousands. Even as the whole world tries to help, many more will perish in the coming days.

A cyclone hit the low-lying river delta around Rangoon (Yangon) in Burma (Myanmar). A tidal surge wiped out whole communities and, days after, a large swath remains under water.

A terrifying 7.9 magnitude earthquake hit central China leveling several cities, tearing up infrastructure and cutting off hundreds of thousands of people. Bridges were downed, roads were ripped off and a large dam now threatens to burst.

Two different calamities. Two very different state responses.

In Burma, the ruling junta restricted the entry of rescue teams as well as supplies. Media coverage of the extent of calamity was heavily curtailed. Instead, the junta supplied the world’s news organizations with sanitized video clips showing a few well-lined tents with sparse, emotionless inhabitants adorned with baskets of food. The video clips showed leaders of the junta in well-pressed uniforms touring these tents and distributing supplies.

To this day, international rescue teams are still stranded in Bangkok waiting for visas to enter Burma. Tons of relief supplies are sitting in Thailand or in French and US ships off the coast. Experts are telling us that thousands of children will die over the next few days because of malnutrition, dehydration and diseases.

Those additional casualties, over and above the tens of thousands already dead, could be prevented if the junta opened up its borders to relief flow and the entry of trained rescue teams. The junta’s attitude has become so alarming, the UN dispatched one of its senior officials to talk to the junta in Rangoon.

It is evident, from the small stream of images and information coming out of the calamity zone that the Burmese military is virtually inutile in the face of a mass-casualty disaster. There is no evidence the soldiers of the junta were at all trained to deal with a calamity. They have no gear, no equipment and no training.

Yet the junta insists all international aid be coursed through the Burmese army. Reports leaking out from the hardest hit areas indicate no relief supplies have reached those who need assistance the most. It is estimated that over two million Burmese will need assistance in the near term. That is a number that the brittle government of Burma can never cope with.

In China, we see a qualitatively different response.

International media coverage of the calamity zone is largely unrestricted. Thousands of soldiers, with the proper gear and apparently sufficient training, have been dispatched quickly to the quake-stricken area. These soldiers have, by every indication, conducted themselves with an acceptable level of professionalism and an impressive dedication to the urgent tasks that have to be done.

International aid and several rescue teams are now in the calamity zone. Several days after the quake, and after three thousand or so aftershocks, quite a number of rescues have been performed. Perhaps upwards of four million people will need sustained help for months as the area is rebuilt.

The global community has been quite impressed with the capacities shown by the Chinese military. These capacities for large-scale and immediate response to a major natural calamity were not expected.

In 1976, when the Maoists ruled China and their know-nothing Red Guards roamed the streets persecuting people with skills, a smaller quake hit this same area. The casualty toll in that quake was estimated at a quarter of a million people.

At that time, the Chinese Army was large but badly trained, highly-motivated ideologically but miserably equipped to accomplish any mission. Remember that when the Chinese Army entered the theater of combat during the Korean War in the early fifties, they simply wasted tens of thousands of soldiers in human-wave attacks on fortified allied positions.

Shortly after the end of the Vietnam War, Beijing had a spat with their southern neighbor and sent in a large army into northern Vietnam to “teach them a lesson.” A smaller, but better-trained Vietnamese force smashed the Chinese incursion and sent the bloodied invasion force scurrying back to their side of the border. For good measure, the Vietnamese dispatched a force to the disputed Paracels and kicked out the Chinese garrison there.

Since then, the Chinese have apparently abandoned the previous idea of having a large army of ideologically motivated fighters with inferior arms. They have since professionalized their military, providing it with modern equipment and training to perform a variety of specialist roles.

We saw the good results of that retraining in the military force sent in, on quick notice, to the quake zone. They had the proper gear and sufficient equipment to deal with the tasks at hand. That was impressive.

The wide difference in the manner the Burmese military and the Chinese military responded to their respective calamities is due to the difference in doctrine, training and logistics.

The Burmese military, obviously, remains a primitive organization oriented to suppressing the population with bayonets and quashing rebellions in the interior of the country. The Chinese military is a modern force prepared not only for war but, more importantly, for securing their own populations in the face of calamity.

The difference between the two militaries have been made so stark the past few days.

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