COMMENTS: Myanmar Keeps its Borders Closed

All week long there has been a contest for top spot in the headlines between the catastrophe caused by Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar and the contest for the Democratic Presidential nomination. The cyclone was Story of the Day Monday and Thursday; Campaign 2008 on Tuesday and Wednesday. Friday saw ABC choose Hillary Rodham Clinton campaigning in Oregon to lead its newscast. Both NBC and CBS had substitute anchors from their morning shows, Ann Curry and Harry Smith, and both led with the Burmese military junta's continued refusal to grant visas to aid workers. Myanmar broke the weeklong tie as Friday's Story of the Day.

NBC got the jump on Nargis coverage for the second straight day, courtesy of ITN its British newsgathering partner. ITN's Neil Connery (no link) has managed to get inside Myanmar's borders and took a boat trip through the devastated Irrawaddy Delta. He saw "horror compounded by a regime indifferent to its people's suffering" as the shoreline was littered with the corpses of those killed by the storm. "It feels like they will never stop," Connery lamented. At one village he was stopped by a government official. "Amid the human crisis he is more concerned with what we are doing. They take our details. It is a nerve wracking few minutes. We soon make a quick escape."

On ABC, Elizabeth Vargas helicoptered from Bangkok to a main Myanmar-Thailand border crossing: "It should be crowded with trucks going in with first aid supplies to the disaster zone. As you can see there are no trucks." CBS' Celia Hatton checked on visa applicants at the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok and found it "closed for a holiday." When the World Food Program shipped in a planeload of high-protein biscuits, military authorities confiscated the shipment "arguing that they will decide how it is doled out," Hatton explained. "The aid being provided by Myanmar's regime is inept at best, criminal at worst. Prime Minister Thein Sein's idea of relief was to donate 20 televisions and ten DVD players to victims of the disaster, the majority of whom have not had electricity since the storm struck."

From Bangkok, NBC's Ian Williams monitored the coverage of the cyclone on Burmese television. He found "a bizarre glimpse of the government's priorities" as it campaigned for a referendum on a new constitution "that would entrench military rule." Williams repeated reports of an outbreak of cholera yet noted that Myanmar's military "has only a few aging helicopters and transport planes and little expertise in relief operations."

On ABC, Jim Sciutto reported on the debate at the United Nations over "the radical option of delivering aid by force" with foreign military air drops, helicopter flights and beach landings. France is in favor; Russia and China are opposed. The UN resolution on protecting civilian populations is ambiguous, Sciutto explained: "Some nations argue that it only applies if governments are actively killing their people rather than failing to save them." The paranoia of the military junta in Myanmar that external delivery of disaster relief could threaten its hold on power may be justified, Sciutto implied: he cited a "potential benefit" of UN intervention that a "so-called relief invasion could help end the repressive dictatorship."

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