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Myanmar regime in crisis, analysts say

The rulers' hesitation in allowing in badly needed foreign aid may be a sign of indecision and fear.

May 09, 2008|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — The growing standoff as governments and aid groups around the world await necessary approval from Myanmar to bring in large quantities of badly needed emergency supplies suggests a leadership battered by indecision and fear, analysts said.

A small quantity of high-energy biscuits arrived Thursday in the isolated nation aboard a commercial flight, but its load paled against the enormous needs of a battered population. Another flight was allowed to land, but it contained no food and Myanmar balked at letting in the experts on board needed to operate its generators and water purification equipment, aid experts said.

Myanmar's Foreign Ministry said in the state-run New Light newspaper today that it welcomed foreign aid but not foreign workers. Humanitarian organizations, on the other hand, say they're wary of handing over millions of dollars' worth of food and equipment to the military government.

Three U.N. World Food Program flights packed with biscuits for the estimated 1 million left homeless by last weekend's cyclone were granted approval Thursday, but the government apparently changed its mind.

"The big challenge today is over the clearance of flights," said Greg Barrow, a WFP spokesman in London.

Myanmar continued to snub the U.S., which has several ships and helicopters standing by to provide emergency supplies and medical care. "We do not yet have confirmation," said Army Maj. Kerrie Hurd, a spokeswoman with the U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii.

Aid specialists say the continuing indecision by the military rulers in Myanmar, also known as Burma, will only push the death count higher as disease and starvation take their toll. Officially, 22,000 people have died and 41,000 are missing, although some critics fear the actual number of dead is several times that many.

"There's a shocking lack of government response," said Shawn Crispin, Asia-Pacific consultant with the Committee to Protect Journalists. "This is emerging as Burma's Hurricane Katrina."

The regime's apparent reversal on the United Nations flights and the mixed signals received by other governments point to an internal struggle among the top leadership, some said. Myanmar's decision-making is shrouded in secrecy, like so much else about the country, which is ruled with an iron fist by a small circle of generals. This leaves most officials afraid to make a decision and no real mechanism for policy debate among ministries and military branches.

"The regime seems very confused," said Zarni, founder of the London-based Free Burma Coalition, who, like many Burmese, uses only one name. "So one group prevails this hour, another group comes in through the kitchen door and prevails the next hour. I don't see the regime having a comprehensive plan to handle this crisis."

Also unclear, analysts said, is whether Senior Gen. Than Shwe maintains his near-monopoly on power or is facing factional challenges.

As insulated as the inner circle may be, ensconced in its bunkers and fancy houses in the new capital, Pyinmana -- built at enormous expense about 200 miles north of the former capital, Yangon -- it can't hide from the growing drumbeat of domestic and international criticism.

Domestically, there is no immediate danger of mass riots or civil unrest because people are struggling too hard to survive, said Aung Naing Oo, a political analyst based in Thailand. But the regime knows anger is building. In addition to many real problems, he said, Myanmar is a superstitious country that has traditionally viewed natural disasters as a sign that the leadership has lost the "mandate of heaven."

The regime, deeply distrustful of foreigners and highly wary of losing control, finds itself under growing international pressure to let in dozens of agencies from abroad whose humanitarian expertise will spotlight its failure to adequately warn the population before the storm and its lumbering response afterward.

"They see the aid community as agents of the West who would foment instability and turn the people against the government," said Charles Petrie, the United Nations' former humanitarian coordinator in Myanmar, who was expelled last fall after he urged the ruling generals to listen to demonstrators criticizing the regime.

Even China, which usually avoids pressuring its neighbor, urged Myanmar on Thursday to accept foreign assistance, even as it called on the international community to respect Myanmar's sovereignty. China's first aid shipment, worth $500,000, has arrived, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said, adding that Beijing was boosting its commitment to $5.3 million from $1 million.

U.S. diplomats continued to talk to mid-level Myanmar officials in Yangon, also known as Rangoon -- receiving "sort of, a lack of response," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack -- and to Chinese, Indian and Thai counterparts.

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