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Regime-Quakes in Burma and China

When news arrived of the catastrophic earthquake in Sichuan, my mind
turned to Zheng Sun Man, an up-and-coming security executive I met on
a recent trip to China. Zheng heads Aebell Electrical Technology, a
Guangzhou-based company that makes surveillance cameras and public
address systems and sells them to the government.

Zheng, a 28-year-old MBA with a text-messaging addiction, was
determined to persuade me that his cameras and speakers are not being
used against pro-democracy activists or factory organizers. They are
for managing natural disasters, Zheng explained, pointing to the
freak snowstorms before Lunar New Year. During the crisis, the
government was able use the feed from the railway cameras to
communicate how to deal with the situation and organize an
evacuation. We saw how the central government can command from the
north emergencies in the south.

Of course, surveillance cameras have other uses too like helping to
make Most Wanted posters of Tibetan activists. But Zheng did have a
point: nothing terrifies a repressive regime quite like a natural
disaster. Authoritarian states rule by fear and by projecting an aura
of total control. When they suddenly seem short-staffed, absent or
disorganized, their subjects can become dangerously emboldened. Its
something to keep in mind as two of the most repressive regimes on
the planetChina and Burmastruggle to respond to devastating
disasters: the Sichuan earthquake and Cyclone Nargis. In both cases,
the disasters have exposed grave political weaknesses within the
regimesand both crises have the potential to ignite levels of public
rage that would be difficult to control.

When China is busily building itself up, creating jobs and new
wealth, residents tend to stay quiet about what they all know:
developers regularly cut corners and flout safety codes, while local
officials are bribed not to notice. But when China comes tumbling
downincluding at least eight schools in the earthquake zone the
truth has a way of escaping from the rubble. Look at all the
buildings around. They were the same height but why did the school
fall down? a distraught relative in Juyuan demanded of a foreign
reporter. Its because the contractors want to make a profit from
our children. A mother in Dujiangyan told The Guardian, Chinese
officials are too corrupt and bad%.They have money for prostitutes
and second wives but they dont have money for our children.

That the Olympic stadiums were built to withstand powerful quakes is
suddenly of little comfort. When I was in China, it was hard to find
anyone willing to criticize the Olympic spending spree. Now posts on
mainstream web portals are calling the torch relay wasteful and its
continuation in the midst of so much suffering inhuman.

None of this compares with the rage boiling over in Burma, where
cyclone survivors have badly beaten at least one local official,
furious at his failure to distribute aid. Simon Billenness, co-chair
of the board of directors of U.S. Campaign for Burma, told me, This
is Katrina times a thousand. I dont see how it couldnt lead to
political unrest.

The unrest of greatest concern to the regime is not coming from
regular civilians but from inside the military a fact that explains
some of the juntas more erratic behavior. For instance, we know that
the Burmese junta has been taking credit for supplies sent by foreign
countries. Now it turns out that it have been taking more than
creditin some cases it has been taking the aid. According to a
report in Asia Times, the regime has been hijacking food shipments
and distributing them among its 400,000 soldiers. The reason speaks
to the deep threat the disaster poses. The generals, it seems, are
haunted by an almost pathological fear of a split inside their own
ranks%if soldiers are not given priority in aid distribution and are
unable to feed themselves, the possibility of mutiny rises. Mark
Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK, confirms that before the
cyclone, the military was already coping with a wave of desertions.

This relatively small-scale theft of food is fortifying the junta for
its much larger heistthe one taking place via the constitutional
referendum the generals have insisted on holding, come hell and high
water. Enticed by high commodity prices, Burmas generals have been
gorging off the countrys natural abundance, stripping it of gems,
timber, rice and oil. As profitable as this arrangement is, junta
leader Gen. Than Shwe knows he cannot resist the calls for democracy

Taking a page out of the playbook of Chilean dictator Augusto
Pinochet, the generals have drafted a Constitution that allows for
future elections but attempts to guarantee that no government will
ever have the power to prosecute them for their crimes or take back
their ill-gotten wealth. As Farmaner puts it, after elections the
junta leaders are going to be wearing suits instead of boots. Much
of the voting has already taken place but in cyclone ravaged
districts, the referendum has been delayed until May 24. Aung Din,
executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, told me that the
military has stooped to using aid to extort votes. Rainy season is
coming, he told me, and people need to repair their roofs. When
they go to purchase the materials, which are very limited, they are
told they can only have them if they agree to vote for the
constitution in an advance ballot.

The cyclone, meanwhile, has presented the junta with one last, vast
business opportunity: by blocking aid from reaching the highly
fertile Irrawaddy delta, hundreds of thousands of mostly ethnic Karen
rice farmers are being sentenced to death. According to Farmaner,
that land can be handed over to the generals business cronies
(shades of the beachfront land grabs in Sri Lanka and Thailand after
the Asian tsunami). This isnt incompetence, or even madness, as many
have claimed. Its laissez-faire ethnic cleansing.

If the Burmese junta avoids mutiny and achieves these goals, it will
be thanks largely to China, which has vigorously blocked all attempts
at the United Nations for humanitarian intervention in Burma. Inside
China, where the central government is going to great lengths to show
itself as compassionate, news of this complicity could prove

Will Chinas citizens receive this news? They just might. Beijing
has, up to now, displayed an awesome determination to censor and
monitor all forms of communication. But in the wake of the quake, the
notorious Great Firewall censoring the Internet is failing badly.
Blogs are going wild, and even state reporters are insisting on
reporting the news.

This may be the greatest threat that natural disasters pose to
contemporary repressive regimes. For Chinas rulers, nothing has been
more crucial to maintaining power than the ability to control what
people see and hear. If they lose that, neither surveillance cameras
nor loudspeakers will be able to help them.

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