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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.

(Page 2 of 2)

The concentration of power in Than Shwe's hands may be lessening as the post-cyclone crisis gathers pace. Last week, a US military plane in neighboring Thailand was given permission to fly in supplies, an order that was later rescinded, part of a possible tug of war between junta factions. "There are some officers who are fed up with the situation, but they can't do anything," says Win Min, an exiled Burmese who lectures at Chiang Mai University in Thailand.

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In an echo of Maoist China, analysts say fearful aides to junta leaders also shield them from the grim realities of Burma, one of Asia's poorest countries. The move to the new capital with luxury villas, pagodas, and parade grounds has walled off a regime that believes its own shrill propaganda of national might, says Aung Naing Oo, an exiled analyst in Thailand.

"They live in their own cocoon. It's another planet. They don't grasp the magnitude of the (post-cyclone) situation. That's why they're holding out," he says.

On Saturday, a national referendum on a military-drafted constitution was held in unaffected parts of Burma, defying a last-minute call by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to put aside politics for now. Analysts say Than Shwe's determination to ram through the controversial charter amid claims of vote rigging is one factor in its closed-door policy for most aid workers. A second round is due May 24.

While the regime fears foreign soldiers because of the threat they pose to an unpopular dictatorship, aid workers are seen as potential spies or allies of activists. Even before the cyclone, foreign groups faced stifling controls that kept aid low. "As far as the generals are concerned, we are the enemy," says Derek Tonkin, a retired British ambassador to Southeast Asia. "So when the enemy wants to hand over some gifts, not only are they inherently suspicious," he adds, but the initial reaction is hostile.

Sanctions reinforce hard line

Some analysts say that US and European sanctions, designed to pressure the regime into reforms, have reinforced its mind-set of isolation and privation. In recent years, natural gas exports to Thailand have swelled the nation's international reserves by more than $3 billion, and new pipelines are being laid to China, says Mr. Turnell.

Little of this trickles down: some 70 percent of average income goes to food. This vulnerability spurred protests last year over fuel-price hikes last September that drew support from Buddhist monks before being violently suppressed.

After gaining independence from Britain in 1948, Burma struggled to hold together against internal strife. In 1962, the Army seized power, expelled foreigners, and introduced socialism. A failed uprising in 1988 brought in this junta, which liberalized parts of the economy and rebuilt ties with neighbors. But as countries like Indonesia and Thailand have shed their military rulers and modernized, and Vietnam and China have promoted entrepreneurship, Burma has become the weak man of the region.

The 400,000-strong Army faces challenges, though, that the cyclone aftermath may test, says Win Min. The Irrawaddy Delta is a key recruitment area, and the devastation will hurt morale among poorly paid soldiers, widely unpopular for firing on protesters last year. Up to 3,000 soldiers desert every four months, and more underage men are being pressed to serve, he says.

Wire service material was used.