I've been watching the events in the last week in Myanamar (formerly known as Burma) with horror.
A week ago, a cyclone caused a surge of water to flood the lowlands. The death estimates, including disease, are reaching 100,000. The military government has not only done little to nothing, but they've actually kept international aid from reaching the stricken people. I was reminded of the 1972 earthquake in Nicaragua.
On December 23, 1972, Nicaragua's capital city Managua was virtually levelled by an earthquake. Thousands were killed initially, and more died of thirst, starvation and disease as the kleptocrat Anastasio "Tacho" Somoza's government, propped by the Nicaraguan military, not only failed to bring relief, but actually stole relief supplies that were sent to Nicaragua.
Somoza had inherited the dictatorship from his father, Antonio Somoza Garcia* after a young poet, Rigoberto López Pérez, assasinated the elder Somoza in 1956. While Nicaragua had economic growth on paper as a result of industrialization, the vast majority of Nicaragua lived in squalor. Nicaragua was at the bottom of every quality of life index in the book. Literacy was almost non-existent; disease and murder rates were high, as was poverty. Somoza ran Nicaragua as a virtual fiefdom. He owned most of the industry and agriculture.
It came, then, as little surprise when Somoza looked at the relief supplies pouring in to Nicaragua as another opportunity for graft. The American baseball player Roberto Clemente, who was latino (Puerto Rican), decided to help out. He gathered tons of supplies-- food, medicine-- and decided to personally bring them to Nicaragua, to avoid Somoza seizing them. Unfortunately, the plane he had chartered crashed on take-off, killing him and everybody else on board.
The longterm consequences for Somoza were dire. The Nicaraguan people were outraged. The FSLN, or "Sandinistas" had been running a campaign of guerilla resistance since Tomas Borge and Carlos Fonseca had started it in 1961. The campaign had been largely futile-- until the earthquake. The outrage over the lack of response to the earthquake enraged and emboldened thousands of young people, who took to the mountains and joined the Sandinistas. In July of 1979, the Sandinistas took power in Nicaragua. The final rebellion was sparked by the murder of Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, a respected editor of La Prensa, Nicaragua's most popular newspaper. When Nicarguan soldiers murdered Bill Stewart, an ABC reporter, an event that was videotaped and shown on US television, even the United States had to pull its support for Somoza.
In many ways, the Burmese junta is like Somoza-- corrupt, arrogant and out of touch. Two years ago, video of the lavish wedding of Thander Shwe, daughter of junta leader General Than Shwe, caused outrage in impoverished Burma. The bride was decked in millions of dollars worth of diamonds.
There were widespread protests last year in Myanmar, led by Buddhist monks. Those protests were brutally suppressed. This time, though, the outrage is even more widespread, the anger palpable. Like Nicaragua's people, millions feel they have nothing to lose and everything to gain against the junta.
Brutal corrupt dictators are not known for being savvy to history, so Shwe and the others may want to be hep to Somoza's eventual fate. He was flown out of Nicaragua just before the Sandinista victory. A little over a year after the revolution, Enrique Gorriarán Merlo, an Argentinian guerilla, shot Tacho's car with a bazooka in Asuncion, Paraguay, blowing the former dictator to bits. Even after they leave, thugs are not safe. History has a way of catching up to them.
*It is supposedly the elder Somoza who FDR declared his famous statement "He may be a son-of-a-bitch, but he's our son-of-a-bitch.