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Let Them Eat Cake (Or Watch a DVD)

Just recently Suna and I took a much deserved vacation in France. We had planned a week in Provence, sharing a villa in Gordes with a couple of friends, followed by a week in Montmartre where we had rented a small apartment on the steps leading up to the Sacre Coeur. The idea was to have a taste of both country and city.

Provence was a delight. So, fortunately, was the weather. We arrived back in the capital on a Saturday afternoon, thrilled by the prospect of a full week of walking the fascinating lanes and discovering the variety of restaurants and cafes that still litter the various inner suburbs.

As this was Suna’s first trip to Paris we had decided to take the opportunity to visit all the popular tourist sites which, with the exception of climbing the Eiffel Tower, we managed. Our estimation of an hour and a half waiting to buy tickets was just too much. We were content just to sit under the Monsieur Eiffel’s incredible structure taking photographs and watching others wait in the snaking queue.

Naturally Versailles was on the list of things to do. I had forgotten how huge this place actually is. The grounds stretch further than the eye can see. As we walked through the palatial rooms, following a crowd of excited Japanese armed with cameras and flashlights galore, I related the story of Marie Antoinette to my wife.

This is the young queen, you will recall, who is credited with the preposterous line: If they do not have bread, why do they not eat cake? Shortly afterwards of course they guillotined her and her husband, along with most of the aristocracy, bringing a corrupt, lazy and arrogant monarchy to an end and founding a vibrant republic in its stead.

I’ve always secretly admired the courage of anyone who stands up to corrupt power. Suna, it appeared, was equally enthralled and startled by this history, pondering out loud what had caused the monarchy to become so out of touch with the people.

As we ambled from one immense palatial chamber to another, the gathering frowns on Suna’s face indicated (or so I thought) a comparison she was drawing between her own monarch, the much-beloved King Of Thailand, and these French unfortunates. Later that evening, however, she explained what had really been on her mind. I should have known not to underestimate her ability to make unexpected leaps of logic.

She had actually been thinking about the situation in Myanmar where a gang of terrified middle-aged men see themselves as saviors of their nation but are as divorced from reality as was Marie Antoinette. Here, many centuries on and a world away from France, though disturbingly closer to our home in Thailand, an scandalous approach to a humanitarian crisis is unfolding.

Might the current situation precipitate a revolution of the kind we saw in France? Is it likely that Buddhist monks would lead such a revolution? And if not, what responsibility should we then accept as global citizens for taking action to help the people of Burma rid themselves of such tyrannical and deluded rulers who cling to power purely for personal gain?

The generals, by their inaction and vanity, have turned a bad situation into an appalling catastrophe. The cyclone in Myanmar cut a swathe of devastation through the Irrawaddy delta. Entire communities and villages have been destroyed. Thousands of people have been killed. Many more are still missing. Children have been orphaned and crops devastated.

According to recent estimates, 128,000 people have died as a result of the cyclone and a further 200,000 are missing. Several relief agencies have expressed fears of killer outbreaks of diseases such as typhus, cholera and dysentery due to exposure, wretched sanitation and water contaminated by the bodies of dead people and animals.

Natural disasters on this kind of scale necessitate a swift response from the global community as well as the nation affected. In stark contrast to China’s initial rapid acceptance of assistance, what we have witnessed in Myanmar, with ever-increasing alarm and disbelief, was a junta intent on keeping foreign aid and welfare away from their people.

While the majority of villagers in southern Myanmar went without food, shelter, medicine, water and electricity, the ruling elite denied visas to humanitarian relief workers and brazenly used state-controlled media to show their benevolence in giving away television sets and DVD players to the starving!

In some cases, choreographed sequences had the generals handing out food parcels and being embraced by grateful tearful citizens. Off camera, however, a travesty was taking place as they hastily plastered their names on a few paltry aid packages donated by a concerned world community and stole the remainder. Help for the many was restricted to a few loyal supporters - all to ensure that the generals remain in control. And that despite growing criticism from around the world and a military suffering from poor morale and mass desertion.

To the Asian community the Myanmar regime is a shameful scar that continues to attach its oppressive reputation to an organization that is meant to improve the quality of life of those living within its borders. Is it any wonder that those who have previously enjoyed a lucrative business relationship with the generals are remaining silent these days?

Surely no country in the world these days need sacrifice humanity for paltry geopolitical or religious reasons, natural resources or access to profitable future markets? The very thought is a blight on civilized society. This is not a question of Asian values against western values. It is not a question of democracy versus other forms of government, even when these are extreme. It is about what is right and what is wrong.

Meanwhile a similar history may be unfolding in Zimbabwe. There are clear signs that Robert Mugabe may now be just a figurehead. The real power probably lies with the Joint Operations Command committee. It was this bunch of bemedalled generals that ensured Mugabe did not step down after his recent defeat in the presidential elections. It is they who are now masterminding a terror campaign to suppress the opposition Movement for Democratic Change and guarantee Mr Mugabe victory in the run-off later this month.

The most powerful figures in this junta are General Constantine Chiwenga, the military chief; Augustine Chihuri, the national police commissioner; and General ParadzaiZimondi, the commander of the prison service. Air Marshal PerenceShiri, the commander of the air force, who masterminded a brutal military campaign against Zimbabwe's minority Ndebele people in the 1980s, is also part of this circle, though far less influential. All four fought in Mr Mugabe's guerrilla army during the war against white rule in the 1970s and benefited from Mr Mugabe's seizure of white-owned land.

In truth there is not too much difference today between Myanmar and Zimbabwe where the militarization of the state is all but complete – and this in a country where the economy, along with hope, has been utterly destroyed.

Every national leadership carries the burden of responsibility for the education, health, wealth and welfare of its people, be they democrats, communists, kings or dictators. If a leadership fails in this regard they must make way for those who have the understanding, compassion and competence to deliver.

Those who support the resident evils of these unlawful regimes stand indicted by the selfish actions of gangs of thugs who have shown only self-interest and an absolute disregard for their responsibilities. The rest of the world should condemn their actions and take steps to rapidly restore humanity to the people of Myanmar and Zimbabwe.

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