Page last updated at 18:44 GMT, Monday, 5 May 2008 19:44 UK

Disaster tests Burma's junta

By Kate McGeown
Asia-Pacific editor, BBC News website

Soldiers use a hand-saw to cut down a tree blocking a road, 5th May
Eyewitnesses complain that the official response has been inadequate
Until Saturday, a common view among Burmese people was that life could not get much worse.

The country had been sliding ever deeper into poverty, and after the anti-government protests in September were brutally quashed, the prospect of an end to military rule seemed ever more remote.

Even the junta's planned referendum on its long-awaited constitution, scheduled to take place on 10 May, did not sound promising - with accusations of vote-rigging and intimidation marring the government's claim it would be a step towards democracy.

But no-one could have predicted there would be yet another blow in store for the Burmese people - this time from the forces of nature.

According to the latest government estimates, more than 10,000 people may have died in Saturday's cyclone, which has devastated large swathes of the south, including the main city Rangoon.

Several hundred thousand people are thought to be in need of shelter and drinking water.

Whatever they think of their leaders right now, the people of Burma desperately need their help.

And for a government which is already under intense pressure to reform and justify its grip on power to the international community, coping with a disaster of this magnitude is a crucial test.

'Just standing around'

Initial indications show the military junta is not coping at all well.

Flooded fields ( image from Myanmar TV)
Large parts of southern Burma have been flooded (image: Myanmar TV)
The few civilians who have been able to get through to the outside world since the disaster talk of a slow, inadequate response.

"The USDA [the civilian arm of the military junta] have turned up but they're not really doing anything - they're just standing around," one woman told the BBC.

Former Swedish government minister Jens Orback, who was in Rangoon at the time, said there had been no help from the authorities "for the first 10 to 12 hours".

"There were no policemen and no military on the streets but people were privately out there with their hand-saws, chopping the trees," he said.

State-run television has shown footage of troops working to clear streets but in reality many areas have yet to receive any help from the military, according to Aung Zaw, the editor of Irrawaddy, a publication run by Burmese journalists in exile in Thailand.

"The soldiers are only helping people near the military facilities; downtown Rangoon is like a ghost town," he said.

International help

But now the scale of the disaster is more apparent - the authorities increased their estimate of the death toll from 350 to 10,000 on Monday - the government has finally admitted it cannot cope alone.

BBC map
Late on Monday the United Nations confirmed that Burma had agreed to accept international assistance.

Several aid agencies, such as World Vision, Save the Children and the World Food Programme, are already being given access to affected areas and have plans to airlift large qualities of supplies into the country in the coming days.

The international community will be watching closely to see how many restrictions the government will place on this aid distribution.

Karen state in the east and Arakan state in the south-west, which borders the Irrawaddy delta, have been closed to foreigners for years, amid reports of abject poverty and repression of ethnic minorities.

There will doubtless be intense international pressure to allow urgent supplies into these areas as soon as possible.

Postponing the vote?

The international spotlight was already on Burma, even before the cyclone.

Residents queue to get drinking water in Rangoon on May 5, 2008
Even if we use our own pumps we can't get any water out of the mains.
Rangoon resident

In the wake of the crackdown on monks and other anti-government demonstrators in September, there has been a constant stream of calls by Western governments urging Burma to move towards democracy.

After 15 years of stalling, Senior General Than Shwe recently announced that a new draft constitution had been completed, and would be put to a referendum to pave the way for democratic elections in 2010.

This referendum is due on 10 May - less than a week away - and to many analysts' surprise, the government has shown no sign of postponing it because of the cyclone.

In fact, according to the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper on Monday, "the entire people of the country are eagerly looking forward" to the poll.

Aung Naing Oo, a Burma analyst based in Thailand, said the government probably wanted to go ahead with the referendum because a postponement would give the opposition more time to drum up support for its campaign for a "no" vote.

But Aung Zaw from Irrawaddy magazine believes that holding the poll as planned might prove a bad idea for the military rulers, due to the level of public anger at their handling of the cyclone disaster.

The truth is that, right now, people living in large swathes of southern Burma probably do not care much either way about the referendum.

While there is undoubtedly a desire for political change, as shown by the strength of the protests last September, there is currently a much more urgent need - that of basic survival.

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