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Hundreds of miles from the rubble in Burma’s quake-stricken Shan state, a potentially far more serious disaster is unravelling: two weeks ago some 7,000 fisherman were at sea on flimsy bamboo rafts off the southern Irrawaddy coastline when a storm hit. Less than half have since returned, and the woefully small number of observers who have picked up on the incident are resigning themselves to a morbid outcome.
That the scale of the likely death toll – somewhere in the region of 3,700 people – has been eclipsed by the 100 dead in Shan state is symptomatic of several issues: one is the mountain of problems involved in getting information from a region where Burmese authorities are still acutely sensitive to foreign journalists and aid workers, given the debacle that followed cyclone Nargis in 2008, and a second is the somewhat myopic workings of international media.
The first mention in Burmese domestic press that something was awry in the country’s south came on 24 March, eight days after the storm struck. One article in the New Light of Myanmar typically led with the government’s response, and reserved the majority of its column to heap praise on the rescue effort. But we expect that from state media. What began to become apparent however was that the heroism smothered reports from villages along the shoreline that significant chunks of their population had not returned, all the more worrying given that now is the shrimping season and the Gulf of Martaban is packed with thousands of rudimentary boats and barges that would struggle to withstand extreme weather.
On various web chat forums, the few locals there with internet access were giving widely disparate accounts of what had happened: some said all was fine, while one person who claimed to be a survivor said that the water had been littered with floating bodies, some crushed between the barges. Estimates of dead or missing ranged from zero to 10,000. As of Wednesday last week, after several news groups reported that thousands were feared missing, some international aid groups working in Burma still expressed surprise at the mention of ground reports coming from the region. And by Friday, the UN said that it was focusing its efforts on the events unfolding in Shan state.
And with the UN probably went any hope of a good outcome to the now-familiar tale. If eventually it does turn out that thousands have died at sea in recent days, unbeknown to nearly all but their close ones, then of course the Burmese junta, whose rescue efforts show that it was aware of the crisis early on, must take a large portion of the blame for not demanding the assistance of aid groups generally better equipped to deal with such crises.
But international media has also fallen victim to the age-old handicaps of laziness – at least three quite high-profile Burmese news groups have followed it – and trends, and the lax response is a major lost opportunity given evidence that media pressure can work its way to the heart of the regime. In the wake of the Japanese disaster, earthquakes are now vying with popular uprisings for the ‘hot topic’ accolade, and so journalists point a divining rod at the issue and follow in hot pursuit, leaving behind a far bigger disaster. Aid groups with unique access to the region, and who often act as crucial sources for media, have also been slow to respond, their efforts perhaps curtailed, maybe even distracted, by the earthquake.
What has happened in Shan state is horrific, and sustained attention is desperately needed to ensure both that survivors still trapped under the rubble are rescued, and that the Burmese junta isn’t skimming aid money or arresting relief workers, as it is in the habit of doing. But what the magnetic pull of the quake story, complete with its regional tremors and powerful buzzwords, has done is to highlight a major shortcoming of the way in which news works, and as an inevitable by-product, the somewhat illogical prioritising we use to rank certain global events.
We pray that the death toll in Burma’s east won’t climb any higher, but weeks or months down the line, when something closer towards confirmation of the storm fatalities emerges from the veiled Irrawaddy region, one may feel a certain sense of tunnel vision regarding disaster response in Burma. Unlike past natural disasters, the government has been surprisingly speedy and public with its reaction to the quake, rightly drawing praise from relief teams there, but perhaps planting another kick to the teeth of the missing fishermen. As for journalists, we all too often follow the media fanfare and thus skirt certain issues, regardless of the attention they warrant, in the quest to satisfy the thirst of our audience and avoid that extra bit of lengthy and frustrating investigative work the industry has lost its hunger for.