Nargis versus Katrina
Living in Asia, I have been following the disaster in Myanmar very closely. The local news here in Taiwan has provided non-stop coverage, as has CNN International. The response to Cyclone Nargis by the ruling government in Myanmar has made me reflect on Hurricane Katrina and my own government’s reaction to that disaster.
At the time of Katrina, I was back in the US for an extended period of time and was able to watch news coverage daily. I watched the forecasts saying that an enormous storm would make direct contact with the Gulf Coast and I watched the impotent response in the aftermath.
It was such a helpless feeling for so many Americans as we watched our government do nothing while stories of hunger, death and destruction emerged. Even though there was sufficient time between the prediction of the storm and the storm making landfall, the response was appalling at best. After the feelings of helplessness, there was anger at claims of mismanagement, fraud and general chaos at the local, state and national levels.
Anger seems to be where the world is now with regard to the Myanmar disaster. The generals not allowing aid in — when it seems there was a line at the borders just begging to feed, clothe and medicate the victims — has enraged even the usually restrained UN. The Myanmar junta has denied almost every request from the outside world to provide assistance.
To the US government’s credit, we are trying to send relief aid in now to Myanmar. But how ironic is it that the US administration is criticizing the junta for not allowing in aid in a timely manner? Maybe we actually learned something from the Katrina debacle.
The leadership has let thousands of people languish in the disaster zone without food, shelter or medical supplies for days. Management and direction have been virtually absent and the people are on TV begging for help.
Am I talking about the Irrawaddy delta in today’s Myanmar or about the Gulf Coast of the US in 2005?
The DPP’s downfall
The demise of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is in a small way a tragedy for Taiwan. The party’s 20 or so legislative seats and the handful of local governments and counties under its control represent the real return of a superficially restyled Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) hegemony a la Singapore.
Over the last eight years, the DPP has made two key mistakes. It promised and failed to end corruption in a country where corruption is institutional, culturally embedded and even celebrated. Instead of promising to end corruption it should have promised to make it clearly more profitable for people to engage in legal transactions.
Additionally, the party was almost mute in its response to criticisms that it was itself corrupt. During the election it was down to the DPP to prove that it had lived up to its core values, whereas few genuinely believed the KMT when it spoke against black gold politics — it is, after all, pre-eminent in this field.
Corruption was instead the DPP’s Achilles’ heel. On a cynical level, it came down to the question of whose corruption was going to be the most profitable for ordinary people, and which party would make corruption a sustainable and productive activity.
The second key mistake was political naivete and timidity. The party was torn in two directions. A principled approach to governance put the onus on clean administration and following rules in order to deepen democratic practice and lay down an important precedent for the execution of state power. In this respect, the DPP did manage to raise the population’s awareness of, and value for, a constructive democratic praxis. The public’s disappointment with legislators of all stripes also demonstrates this.