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.
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]."
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."
Still, state television played up images of soldiers clearing debris and conducting rescue operations, the Associated Press reported.
"From the outside, we can see the junta has so many limitations. But this will be the first time that they will have to admit that they have limitations," says Pornpimon Trichot, of Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand. "[They] may realize ... you cannot only have strong men and advanced weapons."
Many analysts point to the referendum, which the government says will go ahead on May 10, except in 47 hard-hit townships, which will vote May 24. The Army drafted the constitution, saying it will devolve authority, but critics say the generals will retain their power monopoly. With resentment running high against the government, experts say many citizens could vote "no" and force the regime to make compromises with opposition groups.
Still, if protests could not shake them, a storm is unlikely to either, analysts say. "There were huge protests and that didn't weaken the regime. The regime has an apparatus to keep itself in power by coercion," says Tim Huxley, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies-Asia in Singapore.
But following Pakistan's deadly earthquake in 2005, an influx of foreign aid workers dramatically improved perceptions of the West and strengthened ties between the US and Pakistani military.
Burma's opening up to aid could open a door to more dialogue, experts say. "You could develop a long-term humanitarian program that opens up other forms of dialogue," says Charles Perry, of the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis in Cambridge, Mass.
Analysts caution that the junta is too calculating not to see that foreign governments view the disaster as an opportunity. And there are no guarantees that, once they've received aid, the generals won't shut down again, analysts say.
But "the cyclone could trigger social unrest in Burma," says Zaw. "I do think there's going to be a political upheaval."