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Burma (Myanmar): An unbending junta still blocks aid

The military regime views foreign aid workers as potential spies or
activists' allies.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 12, 2008

In control: Gen. Than Shwe heads Burma's military-led government.


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For international aid workers trying to reach cyclone survivors in Burma (Myanmar), it's a race against time to reach up to 1.5 million stricken people. To Burma's reclusive military rulers, though, the calculus of aid looks very different, and the goal remains to keep absolute control over a cowed population.

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Capricious, unworldly, and often guided by soothsayers, Burma's aging clique of generals have centralized decisionmaking to such an extent that most civilian state agencies are empty shells. And decades of self-imposed isolation have bred an extreme suspicion of outsiders in a brittle, dysfunctional junta that clings to power by crushing all opposition, say Burmese and Western analysts who have studied the group for years.

That deep-seated distrust was reflected Sunday as the junta, while accepting aid, continued to bar most foreign aid workers with expertise in massive aid distribution. Burma's leaders said they wanted to manage the delivery of aid themselves, despite aid agencies' urgent warnings of escalating threats that could sharply increase the death toll.

The United Nations reported progress in getting some aid through, with roads being cleared and the piped water supply partly restored in Rangoon. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) said three planes had delivered 14 tons of shelter material, and another seven flights were to arrive Monday with mosquito nets, jerry cans, and other equipment. A US cargo plane was scheduled to deliver aid on Monday, while France was set to deliver 1,500 tons of rice by midweek.

But thousands have yet to receive aid more than a week after the cyclone struck, killing as many as 100,000 people, according to some estimates.

The logistical challenges of distributing that aid, however, especially without the guidance of experts, are enormous. A boat bringing in some of the first aid sank in the Irrawady delta, according to the IFRC, perhaps after hitting a submerged tree. At refugee centers, people lined up to receive rations of oil and rice, while others simply waited along roads, asking for handouts.

Little change in attitude

Thus far, however, little has proved effective in getting the junta to budge.

Known since 1997 as the State Peace and Development Council, the 11-member junta nominally represents the military's service branches and regional Army commands. State media dutifully list the top brass in attendance at every official function, filling pages of newsprint. In recent days, state media have broadcast images of generals delivering international aid with their own names written over those of the donors, according to the Associated Press, eclipsing the pleadings of foreign aid agencies for greater access.

By far the loudest, and most hawkish, voice belongs to Senior General Than Shwe, the regime's paramount leader since 1992. Reportedly in ill health, and steeped in the Army's post-colonial myth as the nation's divinely unifying force, Than Shwe is seen as the biggest obstacle to any political compromise. A leaked video of his daughter's jewel-encrusted wedding in 2006 infuriated Burmese.

Having purged his rivals, most recently pragmatic Prime Minister Khin Nyunt in 2004, Than Shwe has begun acting more like a Burmese monarch than a military leader, says Sean Turnell, who edits an economic journal on Burma at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. A new capital carved into remote central hills is in the footsteps of Burmese kings who often moved their courts. "It's not really a junta now. It's just one man pretending to be a junta," says Mr. Turnell.