The Empire of Human Rights

NEW YORK – Why are French, British, and American warships, but not Chinese or Malaysian warships, sitting near the Burmese coast loaded with food and other necessities for the victims of Cyclone Nargis? Why has the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) been so slow and weak in its response to a natural calamity that ravaged one of its own members?

The French junior Human Rights Minister, Rama Yade, declared that the United Nations’ principle of the “responsibility to protect” should be applied to Burma, forcibly if necessary. And the Malaysian opposition leader Lim Kit Siang has said that Asian countries’ inaction “reflects dismally on all ASEAN leaders and governments. They can definitely do more.”

So, are Europeans and Americans simply more compassionate than Asians?

Given the West’s record of horrendous warfare and often brutal imperialism, this seems unlikely. Moreover, the way ordinary Chinese rallied to help victims of the earthquake in Sichuan has been quite remarkable, as have been the spontaneous efforts of people in Burma to assist their fellow citizens, even as the military did very little. Buddhism stresses compassion and mercy as much as Christianity does. Indifference to suffering is not inherent to any Asian culture.