A drumbeat of diplomatic pressure on the military rulers of Burma (Myanmar) has cracked open the door for more international aid to reach cyclone survivors after weeks of scattershot deliveries. But the junta's reflexive suspicion of the Western powers' offer of humanitarian help, and the hands-off approach of China and India toward the crisis, may continue to frustrate relief efforts, particularly if Burma's neighbors fail to stay engaged, say regional analysts, aid officials, and Western diplomats.
Among the key issues has been the loosening of strict controls on foreign aid workers pressing for unfettered access to the disaster zone. In an apparent breakthrough, Burma's reclusive leader, Gen. Than Shwe, told visiting UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon on Friday that he would be more flexible on access, a stance echoed by other Burmese government officials at an international donors' conference held Sunday in the commercial capital Rangoon (Yangon).
The UN says that up to 2.4 million Burmese need emergency assistance and has begun raising $200 million for a six-month relief program. Nearly 80,000 people are said to have died; 56,000 are counted as missing.
But Western donors demurred at Burma's request Sunday for billions in reconstruction funds, insisting that foreign aid agencies be given freer rein to tackle the crisis before any longer-term commitments. The US, as well as other Western nations, said it would boost its current pledge if granted the ability to assess the disaster zone.
Aid agencies said Monday that restrictions on foreign specialists already in Burma appear to be easing, and they expressed optimism that more would be allowed to enter the country.
"In the last few days ... the visa situation has greatly opened up, and access to the affected area has begun to open up. We can call it fragile, but concrete, evidence is encouraging. Of course, [Burma] has to open up much more to get the right experts in and to get them to where it counts," says Kathleen Cravero, UN Development Program director for the Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery.
But the visa process was interrupted when the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok shut down its visa section after a fire destroyed the second floor. And a frustrated France said Sunday that it would unload aid that has been waiting off the coast in a French ship in Phuket, Thailand, to be taken to Burma by the World Food Program. Still, Burma has approved deployment of 10 WFP helicopters to ferry supplies, with an air-bridge taking shape in Thailand.
The concessions follow weeks of coaxing of an isolated regime that has proven largely impervious to outside persuasion from the United States and other Western critics. Strident calls for China and other Asian allies to pressure the junta or else prepare for a possible outside humanitarian intervention appeared to go unheeded, though, as China insisted that Burmese sovereignty must be respected above all.
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.
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.