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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.

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"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.

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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]."

Since receiving its first international shipment from Thailand Tuesday, Burma has accepted aid from longtime friends China, India, and Indonesia. The US upped its aid pledge to $3 million Wednesday.

The visa holdup for foreign aid workers underscores Burma's dilemma: The Army cannot respond adequately, but allowing outside aid will invite unprecedented scrutiny. "This government is paranoid about foreigners coming in and establishing contacts with the people of Burma," says Aung Zaw, editor of Irrawaddy Magazine, an opposition publication based in Thailand.

Since taking power in a military coup in 1962, Burma's government has positioned itself as one of the world's most authoritarian and isolated. Though the NLD won a landslide election in 1990, the junta rejected the results. And last September's protesters were quickly suppressed.

Many believe the cyclone has created an opportunity for change. "People who I've spoken to in Yangon [Rangoon] are very upset with the government," says Mr. Zaw. "Soldiers who came out against the protesters are nowhere to be seen now."

Mr. Myint, of the NLD, says the government has been unable to prevent looting or provide the basics. "Even in big towns with 100,000, there's only a hundred people receiving government handouts," he says. "They're trying their best, but they can only cover about 5 percent of what is really badly needed."

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