Cyclone threatens military's grip

Lacklustre response casts doubts on generals' ability to keep grip on power.

    Myanmar's state-controlled media has depicted 
    the military as leading aid efforts [Reuters]

    Secreted away in their purpose-built new capital of Naypyidaw, well away from the path of the storm, the Myanmar government was given two day's notice that Nargis was on course to make a direct hit on the country.


    But few survivors say they were given even the vaguest warnings of the storm's approach.


    Now, having redrawn the map of the Irrawaddy delta, speculation is growing that Nargis could also reshape Myanmar's political landscape.


    In depth: Myanmar cyclone

    Millions displaced

    Generals' grip threatened

    Witness: 'Utter devastation'

    Map: Nargis's path

    Satellite photos:

    Before and after


    Picture gallery

    Video: Long wait for aid

    Myanmar's tightly-regulated state television has shown footage of top generals handing out relief supplies at Buddhist temples and soldiers hacking away at fallen trees with axes and hand saws.


    But the reality, many residents say, is far different.


    Survivors who have been forced to virtually fend for themselves have noted the contrast with last September, when the military moved swiftly to crush anti-government protests.


    "The regime has lost a golden opportunity to send the soldiers as soon as the storm stopped to win the heart and soul of people," one retired civil servant in Yangon, the cyclone-hit former capital, told Reuters.


    By Wednesday, five days after the cyclone hit, the government had deployed virtually no rescue teams of its own while foreign aid agencies were complaining they applications to enter the country were being held up in red tape.


    Soe Aung, a democracy activist and spokesman for the Bangkok-based National Council of the Union of Burma, said despite the efforts of state media, the opinions of the people whose lives have been devastated by the cyclone would not be swayed.


    "My friends and relatives in Burma say there is widespread anger among the people." he told Al Jazeera, referring to the former name for Myanmar.


    "This is the worst disaster in the past few centuries in Myanmar," he said.




    The military has said it will press ahead
    with the May 10 referendum

    In an unfortunate twist of timing for the ruling generals, the cyclone ripped through the country just a week before it was due to hold a national referendum on a new constitution.


    David Steinberg, a Myanmar expert at Georgetown University in Washington DC, said that in a country like Myanmar - which places so much emphasis on symbolism and superstition - the timing of the disaster may lead many to question the military's continued legitimacy.


    "The juxtaposition of the cyclone and the voting might cause many in Burma to feel this is an indication that the military should not be in power," he told the Associated Press.


    The military had hoped that the referendum, scheduled for May 10, would go smoothly in its favour. It has postponed polling in the worst-hit areas, but said it will go ahead as planned elsewhere.


    The new constitution – which took 14 years to draft - has been promoted by the military as the foundation for a return to democracy and national elections in 2010.


    But as the full scale of the cyclone disaster emerges and the death toll continues to climb, the less effective the government's relief efforts prove and the bigger the potential questions over the military's legitimacy to rule.


    'Angry and frustrated'


    Larry Jagan, a Myanmar analyst based in Bangkok, said the military's determination to press ahead with the referendum amid the post-cyclone chaos would undoubtedly spark public anger.


    "It shows the people what the real interests of the military are, and it's not the survival of the people," he told Al Jazeera.


    "I think they will be increasingly angry and frustrated that they have to vote."


    Jagan said after the initial shock passes, already skyrocketing food prices and general discontent could well prove a tipping point, triggering a revival of last year's street protests.


    "Some people are suggesting – and I agree with them – that this is the final nail in the military's coffin," he said.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeea and agencies


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