6.8 Magnitude Earthquake Rocks Burma: How Will the Generals Respond?

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A 6.8 magnitude earthquake hit eastern Burma on Thursday night, its epicenter close to the border with Thailand and Laos. Sustained tremors were felt in Bangkok, more than 500 km to the south of the epicenter, and even as far as Hanoi, capital of Vietnam. So far, only one fatality has been reported — that of a 53-year-old woman in Thailand’s Chiang Rai province, buried by her collapsing home.

The U.S. Geological Survey reported at least two aftershocks of 4.8 and 5.4 magnitude. The extent of the damage in Burma is unknown at present. Obtaining reliable information from this pariah state is difficult at the best of times, let alone now in the dead of night and in the wake of a potentially devastating temblor.Burma under the military junta is notoriously opaque. In May 2008, its southern delta region was ravaged by the cataclysmic Cyclone Nargis, which claimed well over 100,000 lives. Then, as perhaps now, the responsiveness and compassion of the country’s rulers proved lacking. Our Hannah Beech reported at the time:

Cyclone Nargis can’t be blamed on Burma’s leaders. But their inaction has indeed been murderous. A week and a half after the storm inundated the Irrawaddy delta with a 12-foot-high tidal surge, flattening countless homes, the junta was still blocking much of the aid proffered by foreign nations. Although three U.S. military cargo planes were allowed to offload relief supplies in Rangoon, the World Food Program estimates that the amount of aid reaching storm victims is just a fraction of what’s needed. Hundreds of international disaster experts are still awaiting visas to enter the country. Meanwhile, the junta’s own relief efforts are painfully inadequate, with some army trucks delivering only rotting rice. Those who received the spoiled food are the lucky ones. In village after remote village that I visited in the flooded delta, no government officials had come to assess the damage, much less bring desperately needed food, water or shelter. Blackened, bloated corpses floated in rivers, the putrid smell of rotting flesh permeating the air. Yet few people seemed to hold any expectations that their leaders would help anytime soon. It is a remarkable accomplishment by the junta to have set the bar for competence so low that resignation reigns as the prospect of slow starvation mounts.

Moreover, the region where the quake struck is part of the rugged jungle expanse once known as the Golden Triangle — the conjoined borderlands of Burma, Laos, Thailand and China’s Yunnan province that once were at the heart of illicit opium cultivation and smuggling. Its stretches in Burma have long been struggled over by the guerrilla armies of some of the country’s most embittered minority ethnicities, making the chances of an effective government rescue and relief mission even more unlikely.