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.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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  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.
"We have a team of five emergency relief members in Thailand. And they have applied for visas. But they are on standby," says Elizabeth Byrs, a spokesperson for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Geneva.
With the UN declaring cyclone Nargis "a major disaster," saying up to 1 million may now be homeless, any delays in international aid could add to the death toll. More than 60,000 have been declared missing and are presumed dead.
Relief groups in the country have begun distributing aid, but road damage and flooding are blocking access to many of the victims.
Speaking from the Thai-Burmese border, Nyo Myint, head of foreign affairs for the main opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, says many survivors in the Irrawaddy delta lack drinking water and food. "Some wells have been filled up with dead bodies. [People] are trying to get drinking water from small ponds, but they are also covered with bodies," he says. "Transportation is a problem because the jetties and the ferryboats are gone.... The only way is to have an airlift supported by the US or [others]."