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Despite Disaster, a Glimmer of Hope for Burma's Future

As western groups urge Burma's military regime to remove red tape delaying a large international aid operation, DW-WORLD.DE spoke with an expert about whether the tragedy could result in positive change in Burma.

A UN worker in Italy loads a plane with humanitarian supplies headed for Burma

Opening up to foreign aid could herald a change in Burma

With large swathes of the Irrawaddy delta under water, an estimated one million people are in dire need of shelter, water, medicine and food. International groups and governments around the world are pressuring Burma's military regime to allow unrestricted access to aid workers to get in emergency supplies.

DW-WORLD.DE spoke with Marco Bünte, an expert on Burma at the Global Institute of Global and Area Studies in Hamburg.

After the cylone that has killed more than 22,000 people and left hundreds of thousands homeless, Burma's military rulers have appealed to the West for help. What do you make of this unusual move?

It shows that the military regime does not have the means to offer help and aid swiftly and on such a huge scale. The state and the authorities are too weak to deliver aid after this huge humanitarian catastrophe. Some 24 million people live in the Irrawady region, which was hit by the cyclone. Large areas still remain inaccessible.

That explains why the regime is appealing to foreign countries for help. Usually the Burmese state is very proud that it makes its own decisions and doesn't have to rely on outside help. That was the case during the tsunami in 2004 when they refused foreign aid.

Do you think the move to ask for foreign aid will open the door to more international contact?

Devastation in Yangon, Burma

Cyclone Nargis ripped through Burma's main city, Yangon

That's a possibility. But it's difficult to say right now because many aid organizations are complaining about a lack of cooperation with the authorities in Burma. Questions also remain about whether these foreign aid groups will stay in the country in the long-term or whether they will only provide emergency aid for immediate needs such as food and drinking water. We need to be critical about how the military regime deals with international aid groups. After all, the regime isn't allowing immediate access to all affected areas, but rather it continues to impose restrictions on the organizations.

Why is that? Is the military regime worried about ceding some of its control?

Yes, of course. It's the result of politics that the Burmese regime has pursued for many years -- the leaders remain extremely mistrustful of any foreign agencies, in particular those from the West. They're afraid these foreign groups could become politically active or bring in ideas that could lead to changes or unrest. Their policy has always been to remain open to aid but only under very stringent and restrictive conditions. That's why it's very significant if the regime does actually open the door a bit further to let in more international aid groups.

Despite international criticism, Burma's military junta seems determined to go ahead with a controversial referendum on the new constitution which would further cement the military's power.

Burmese Junta Chife Than Shwe

Burma's military generals have a firm grip on power

The Burmese military has already announced that with the exception of 47 of the worst affected regions where the vote will be postponed, the planned referendum will go ahead. In the past weeks, the regime has made several efforts to ensure that the referendum results in a positive outcome. They have unleashed a propaganda campaign to urge people to accept the constitution. Soldiers have been deployed in towns and villages to secure the vote. The military regime is doing everything it can to ensure that it gets a vote in favor of the new constitution and is thus not prepared to postpone it.

There have been some reports of rising anger among the population towards the government for failing to warn people about the cyclone and a lack of help in the crisis. Is there potential for a protest movement?

There's definitely potential for protests in the face of the fragile social situation in many regions and the glaring failure of the military government to provide basic help. But it's difficult to say whether the resentment and dissatisfaction with the government is strong enough to actually lead to social unrest or protests. Sometimes you need just a single matchstick to light a fire of protest and sometimes it takes longer. In the past months, food prices and the cost of basic amenities has shot up and led to strong disaffection among the people. Last autumn, anger against rising prices as well as violence against monks spilled over into street protests. This time, the same hasn't happened and at the moment it's difficult to say because we don't know exactly what the situation is like.

It's also possible that in the end people in Burma will end up increasingly focusing on securing their food supplies and repairing their homes and limit themselves to the absolute necessities rather than turning on the government. At the same time, the military regime remains inscrutable -- we don't know for sure whether there are disgruntled members in the military who are also unhappy with the situation in the country. However, the crushing of mass protests last autumn and the stability and unity of the military regime shows it still has an iron grip on the country. At the moment there are no signs of dissent or divisions within the ranks.

The EU and the US have offered Burma humanitarian relief and aid. Is there any way the tragedy could bring about positive change to Burma?

It would be nice but for that the military regime would have to give up its resistance and open the door to all western organizations. That's exactly what the US is demanding by linking its offer of help to access. However, I doubt whether the military is willing to give that kind of access to aid groups because it fears it will then lose some of its control on a regional and local level. I don't think the crisis will lead to a real opening up of the country. At the same time, there is a possibility that the tense relationship between Burma and the international community will be eased somewhat and that cooperation might work better. It's also possible that letting in foreign aid will also help Burma gradually let go of the fears it harbors towards western agencies and may result in more freedom to travel. But these are all small changes. They do not include any far-reaching political change.

What can the West do to further help the people of Burma?

A cyclone survivor in Burma mourns the loss of her son

The cyclone has ravaged the lives of thousands of Burmese

I've always believed that the West has to rethink its sanctions on Burma. That's because the sanctions also block aid from the World Bank and other international organizations. All the sanctions allow are small projects within the framework of humanitarian relief. What's needed is help for Myanmar on a much wider scale that isn't tied to political change and to finance the rebuilding of the country without any strings attached.

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