Good New York times slideshow here
The death toll from the Burmese cyclone looks enormous – on the ground. In attention and response, not so much. As of now, 22,000 confirmed dead and 41,000 missing. These numbers look like they could rise as high as 100,000. I was stuck in the Philippines during a typhoon once, watching it batter the streets, knocking over billboards and bending metal. Fierce, and closed the airport for days. Cyclone Nargis looks much, much worse – as the satellite photo above shows. We even felt the effects in Sri Lanka – with flooding and landslides in Ratmalana and Kegalle, displacing over 4,500. In this soggily connected region, the main government response I heard was Bandula The Toad saying that we’d still get our shipment of Burmese rice. Our government’s intimacy with the ruling Junta aside, Sri Lankan people do have special reason to identify with Burma, and to be concerned.
We’re both largely Buddhist countries that have seen our share of suffering. And we both share the same ocean which brought us the brunt of the tsunami and them the brunt of this cyclone. One curious thing I’ve found is that while the tsunami got weeks of sustained global attention, later disasters like the 2005 Kashmir Earthquake (some 75,000 dead) were just blips. I don’t think global media attention is a factor of raw numbers at all. That is, human attention has to be transmitted across a network, and it has to be maintained.
I’m a firm believer in concentric circles of giving a shit, as in you care about your family and out from there. In loving-kindness meditation you actually radiate compassion outwards, beginning with yourself, then parents, teachers, relatives, friends, and finally out to enemies, individuals and all living creatures. It radiates out, and you can sorta feel it. In human evolution it’s also very difficult to explain altruism (which often destroys your genes) without the premise that we favor family more (hence preserving some of those altruistic genes). Globally, you can see it in media coverage as below.
The UK papers cover UK more, American ones America, Australian ones Australia. Obviously. But when disaster hits in such sheer numbers, we wonder whether that might cause the mind to skip a circle. But it kinda doesn’t. The Indian Ocean Tsunami made an impact because there were many western tourists there, and because Thailand and Sri Lanka (to a lesser extent) are countries on the global grid. In fact, the HBO film on the event focused on mostly western characters in Thailand. The Kashmir earthquake, however, was isolated and didn’t really register. Not because people are bad or uncaring, but cause that’s how the network works.
Burma is another example where the attention may not match the scale of disaster. However, in this case the disconnect is largely self-inflicted. The Burmese junta, who Sri Lanka incidentally felicitates and does business with, systematically represses and impoverishes its people, most recently in the brutal crush of peaceful protests by monks. The infrastructure is bad and many of the areas hit were barely accessible beforehand. Burma is getting an influx of international attention and support, but it’s a struggle to even get the junta to accept aid. They maintain power by keeping their people isolated, even though we can now see the stark cost of isolation. There is talk about invoking ‘Responsibility to Protect’ in the face of this crisis, but the UN will likely sit on its hands. Like the protests before, Burma will make a blip on the radar screen and then slowly disappear back into its General’s squalid pockets, starved of money, electricity and attention.
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