Burma (Myanmar): An unbending junta still blocks aid

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

In control: Gen. Than Shwe heads Burma's military-led government.
Aid Slow in Coming: A volunteer waited for donations outside a refugee center in Myang Mya, Burma, on Sunday. Foreign aid workers say the slow distribution of aid could sharply increase the number of cyclone victims.
Roll Call: Eligible voters checked their names on the electoral roll in Klegu Township, north of Rangoon, Burma, on Saturday. The government went ahead with a constitutional referendum in areas not affected by cyclone Nargis.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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