Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The World is watching

“When I climbed to the boat pier, I saw a corpse of a young child, wearing a rubber band on his wrist. Thousands of lives, thousands of innocent people, lost in the water, lost on the land.”
- Nyi Lynn Seck

If May 2008 will be remembered for the massive tragedies in Burma and China, it could also be credited for being the month when the global community stepped up and became a real force for action.

In years gone by, the aid response to Cyclone Nargis might have remained an issue for governments and aid agencies to fight over in the corridors of the UN. Now, the immediate direct reports of victims via blogs and Twitter feeds mean that few people in the world can say they didn’t know.

Few governments will openly say they want to kill off their people and would normally rely on the darkness of media blackouts. However, the ongoing work by organisations like Reuters-backed Global Voices, and web users themselves, to encourage blogging in countries where self-expression has always been dangerous now means that we have direct reports from countries whose people have had no voice. On Sunday, Myat Thura translated a report by Nyi Lynn Seck, quoted above. With the honesty of the citizen journalist, Myat Thura writes: “When I read Nyi Lynn Seck's article, I really wanted to cry” and the article ended with links to pages where people could donate.

While bloggers could bring individual human experiences to world attention, Google Earth swung into action immediately to support aid agencies and the UN agency UNOSAT in using maps and satellites to view the area affected. Even if visa restrictions mean that the vast majority of them have not been able to get into the area yet, they can be better prepared for when they do and any of the 200 million users who have reportedly downloaded Google Earth can see the extent of the devastation and relief work.

In China, Google were also able to provide services for people to find lost relatives and track relief efforts, which may give critics some assurance that they have been able to have a positive impact even while they have played to the Chinese government’s rules. In addition, Google is matching donations to relief efforts in both China and Burma.

At the time of writing, over 8,000 people had signed a petition calling on the UN to apply the new doctrine ‘Responsibility to Protect’ to enforce international aid. Few governments have endorsed the idea of taking on Burma’s military regime but the public response has given weight to diplomatic efforts by the UN and governments.

While in the Olympic year the Chinese government were unlikely to leave the victims of the earthquake, there’s no doubt that they will have seen the advantage of their fast reaction: hundreds of rescue pictures being beamed around the world, perhaps helping to fade memories of the protests about Tibet and associated web coverage that doggedly pursued the Olympic torch.

Governments, no matter how bad, will rarely declare that they are out to let all their people die and so rely on international ignorance and apathy to let crimes against humanity pass by. The fact that the Cyclone aftermath has been so high profile will certainly have had an impact on the Burmese government’s willingness to engage. The fact that there are more voices than just those in the West also means that they are not being backed into a corner by British and American governments waving aid. On Sunday the British diplomat Lord Malloch-Brown explained to the BBC that although they would like to see aid moving in faster, they were reassured by the fact that Association of East Asian Nation countries were able to broker a link that the "Burmese can work with".

The events of the past two weeks have shown that while ‘responsibility to protect’ has some way to go before becoming a fast-track to prevent mass deaths, the global community are willing to react and have a sense of common humanity. The next challenge for global activists will be to find out how the same power can be harnessed to prevent the ‘slow burning’ crises such as Darfur and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

As pressure continues to let aid through in Burma, the world will continue to watch and wait, and pray, for the survivors of May’s natural disasters.

First published on Knewsroom

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