Myanmar regime in crisis, analysts say

Times Staff Writer

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.

If Myanmar continues to reject U.S. assistance, Washington would consider routing its help through other countries, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said.

A key reason the regime is dragging its feet on allowing in foreign aid, several Burmese living overseas said, may be a desire by the generals to wait until after a referendum on a revised constitution scheduled Saturday. The government has postponed the vote two weeks only in the areas hardest hit.

"They don't want foreigners to enter before May 10th," said Lway Cherry, an activist living in Thailand. "But without water, shelter, food or medicine, many more could die in the next two or three days."

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called Than Shwe, the general, to urge immediate access for aid workers and a postponement of the referendum so that the regime can concentrate on delivering supplies.

Experts said a debate might be raging in the inner circle over whether the greatest threat to the generals' power lies with foreign influence or their own citizens' anger.

"I suspect some are saying, 'It's all too dangerous, we should handle this ourselves,' " said Tim Huxley, the Singaporean-based director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies-Asia, "and others saying, 'The situation is so dire, we need all the help we can get.' "

Though foreign aid workers trying to help survivors would appear to be a minimal threat, the military, which has held power for 46 years, is worried that its people will suddenly have a reality check.

The regime has long been able to craft its own narrative, analysts said, which is now threatened. A case in point, they said, is the death toll, with the government insisting for some time that only 351 people had perished, only to raise the figure suddenly to 10,000, and a little later to 22,000.

"When they say 10,000, Burmese say the real figure must be 50,000," Zarni said. "It's just like during the bird flu epidemic when they told people there was no problem because sick birds from Thailand couldn't fly over the border's high mountains. It's a time warp."

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mark.magnier@latimes.com

Times staff writers Maggie Farley at the United Nations and Paul Richter and Julian E. Barnes in Washington contributed to this report.

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