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Burma (Myanmar) opens door for aid, but remains wary

A donor conference Sunday pledged some $100 million, but participating nations said aid was conditional on greater access.

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Analysts say that China, which fears instability on its borders, had exerted quiet pressure on Burma, at least until its priorities shifted to earthquake relief in Sichuan. But its sway may be limited, as is Beijing's patience with an ally that ignores its advice, says David Mathieson, a researcher for Human Rights Watch. Exiled Burmese opposition groups say they have channels to Beijing officials, whom they claim are worried that the junta could collapse, undoing China's economic interests.

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As its biggest trading partner and military aid supplier, China clearly has influence, says Du Jifeng, a researcher in Asia-Pacific studies at the government-sponsored China Academy of Social Sciences. "But we should not overestimate it, because it does not change Myanmar's foreign policy …[which] is aimed at a balance between China, ASEAN, and India," he says, referring to the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

With China and India in the wings, the diplomatic spotlight has fallen on ASEAN. The group, which includes Burma, called an emergency meeting recently and was cosponsor with the UN of Sunday's donors' conference. To counter Burmese fears of "hidden agendas" by Western workers, ASEAN has agreed to coordinate all relief efforts.

This flurry of activity by ASEAN has surprised many observers. "We've seen the new secretary-general, Surin Pitsuwan, act more boldly than previous ASEAN secretary-generals. As a former foreign minister who's well liked in the region and also very political, he knows how to do these things," says Michael Vatikiotis, Asia director of the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, a Geneva-based organization.

Aid agencies say ASEAN's diplomacy is welcome, but its relief role is unclear, given limited manpower and expertise of its secretariat. Aid workers also question who will take the lead on coordination, a task normally assigned to key UN agencies.

Facing its own natural disaster, China can be forgiven for disengaging from Burma's crisis. But it may have missed a chance earlier to put a humanitarian face on its rising power in Asia, for example by sending military teams, says Steve Tsang, a professor at Britain's Oxford University. China could have been the acceptable face of foreign help in the crucial first week.

"There's a lot China could have done, and they missed the opportunity," he says. "They could have done it in a way that wasn't threatening to ASEAN, or even in conjunction with ASEAN."

But analysts say such an operation would have stretched China's military, as its Navy lacks the force projection of the US Pacific fleet, which has deployed aircraft carriers near Burmese waters in recent weeks in expectation of clearance to deliver aid.

Peter Ford contributed from Beijing, and Chris Johnson contributed from Mae Sot, Thailand.

Donor aid for Burma

About 50 nations at a UN conference Sunday in Rangoon (Yangon) pledged more than $100 million:

• European Commission added $27 million to current $72 million.

• China boosted total pledge to $11 million.

• Australia pledged $24 million.

• The Philippines doubled its previous pledge to $20 million.

• South Korea increased its earlier pledge to a total of $2.5 million.

• The US (which has pledged $20 million) and other Western nations said much more aid was available if foreign assessment teams were admitted.

Source: Associated Press, Reuters