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Disaster may loosen junta's grip in Burma (Myanmar)

A May 10 poll could underscore how unpopular the regime is, as it slowly opens to foreign aid.

By David MonteroCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 8, 2008

Relief: Residents collect water in Rangoon, Burma, where relief groups have been distributing supplies and foreign aid has been trickling in.


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Phnom Penh, Cambodia

The first test of how the people of Burma (Myanmar) view their government's slow response to the devastating May 3 cyclone could come Saturday.

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A previously scheduled vote on a new constitution will be held nationwide, except in the hardest-hit areas. While recent natural disasters in Indonesia and Pakistan have altered the political landscapes in those nations, few analysts expect cyclone Nargis to significantly shake – let alone topple – the military regime. But the Burmese government's reliance on outside assistance could lessen its diplomatic isolation, and popular resentment over how the regime has handled the disaster could further undermine its legitimacy – and even push it to compromise with opposition groups.

"This is an opportunity for opposition groups to make limited gains," says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, head of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "There will be mounting pressures on the government because of its inadequacies. Opposition groups have the upper hand." The disaster could also foster political reconciliation between Burma's government and the outside world, following a pattern from other natural disasters from Pakistan to Indonesia, experts say.

"It could be quite catalytic, like the [2004] tsunami in Aceh," says John Virgoe, the International Crisis Group's Southeast Asia project director in Jakarta, Indonesia. "Indonesia does show how game-changing these disasters can be: The tsunami allowed both sides to say, 'Let's put aside our differences,' " he adds, referring to a cease-fire that ended a running conflict between the Indonesian Army and rebel separatists in Aceh.

Mr. Virgoe and others, however, are quick to caution against drawing a direct parallel to Burma, which has shown disdain for dialogue with political opponents and sent mixed signals about even accepting foreign aid workers.

On Wednesday, as the death toll topped 22,500, relief agencies said they had still not received visas to enter Burma, despite a preliminary agreement from Burma allowing foreign aid workers.

Aid for Burma

Cyclone Nargin's path of destruction through the Irrawaddy Delta has prompted offers of outside help for the people of Burma (Myanmar).

The following is a list of relief agencies around the world that have promised aid and technical support:

• United Nations has assembled a five-member UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination team in Bangkok, Thailand. It also plans to release $10 million in emergency relief and launch an appeal to raise more.

•UNICEF has field offices positioned throughout Burma.

•International Red Cross relief workers are distributing drinking water, clothing, food, plastic tarpaulins, and hygiene kits.

• The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies' emergency disaster fund released about $189,000. They have launched an emergency appeal for $5.9 million to support their current efforts.

• Myanmar Red Cross said it would allocate 5 billion kyats ($4.5 million) for relief and resettlement work. The organization is also distributing insecticide-treated bed nets to help prevent malaria.

• The American Red Cross has pledged $100,000 in funds and supplies.

• World Vision Australia has pledged A$3 million ($2.8 million) for the first month of relief operations in Burma. About 25 health specialists are being sent to boost efforts of 600 permanent staff.

• Save the Children plans to distribute emergency relief supplies to children and families.

• International Medical Corps is working with local organizations in Indonesia to deploy an emergency response team to Burma.

• Americares is delivering humanitarian supplies.

• GlobalGiving plans to provide grass-roots aid by funding projects in Burma.

• Doctors Without Borders is distributing food, fuel, and plastic sheeting.

• Direct Relief International has pledged support for Australian Aid International's emergency medical team.

•International Relief Teams plans to send tarps, tents, mosquito nets, water purification tablets, and food.

•Operation USA plans to offer shelter, water purification, and healthcare supplies.

•The ReliefWeb website offers a list of aid organizations.

•Reuters AlertNet website also has a list of aid organizations.

Government contributions

•United States:$3 million to UN agencies, up from an initial $250,000.

•European Union:€2 million (US$3.1 million).

•China: US$1 million in aid, including relief materials worth $500,000.

•Norway:10 million kroner (US$1.96 million).

Sources: Reuters, Associated Press, Los Angeles Times