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Commentary: Did Cyclone Nargis hit the generals' mindset?

Htet Aung Kyaw

May 21, 2008 (DVB), Although the deadly Cyclone Nargis did not strike the generals’ new jungle capital Naypyidaw directly, it may have struck a blow against the mindset of the generals and changed their way of thinking.

But it remains to be seen how hard it was hit and how long it will take for any real change to come about.

For the second time since last September’s saffron revolution, our office is crowded with foreign media crews. As the junta has denied journalists visas for Burma, many Europe-based media groups come to our office in search of first-hand information, video footages and comments.

As well as questions about the latest information, I was frequently asked, "Do you think the junta will fall soon?" But there are no demonstrations on the streets of Rangoon to urge regime change this time. Never the less, journalists still asked, "Do you think Cyclone Nargis can bring about any change in Burmese politics?"

I was surprised and unprepared for this question as I had thought of the cyclone as just a natural disaster, not a political issue. "Please don’t get your hopes up, guys. This is just a disaster," I told them.

But now, almost three weeks after the cyclone struck, I think I need to reconsider my answer.

In Rangoon, the junta announced that 130,000 people are dead or missing while over 1 million people need urgent help. But they are still delaying the delivery of foreign aid to survivors and denying visas to allow foreign aid workers into the country.

In response to the junta’s inhumane treatment, some warships carrying emergency food supplies from the US and France are in position near the delta coastline and there were strong warnings of humanitarian intervention if relief access continued to be denied.

After a 20-day stand-off, the junta agreed to allow hundreds of ASEAN aid workers into the country at a meeting in Singapore, and invited United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon to visit. His deputy John Holmes, the UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, is currently visiting the hard-hit delta region.

In addition, they allowed dozens of World Food Programme helicopters into the disaster zone. The junta has now also agreed to hold an international-level donor meeting in Rangoon on Sunday.

So is this a sign that the generals' mindset is beginning to change?

While the junta has seemed to be relaxing some of its restrictions on foreign aid donations and relief workers, on other issues in Burma it is business as usual.

Despite the small steps it has now made, the junta will still go ahead with its referendum on Saturday in the 47 townships of the cyclone-devastated Irrawaddy delta and Rangoon division where the vote was postponed for two weeks.

Following the 10 May vote in the rest of the country, the regime announced that 92.4 percent of voters supported the military-dominated constitution, even as the majority of Burmese people were crying over the tragedy of the cyclone.

Moreover, they have shown no signs of releasing opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, student leader Min Ko Naing and other 88 Generation Student leaders, or the monk leader U Gambira who played a key role in last September's saffron revolution.

On balance, we can see that the small changes in the generals' way of thinking following Cyclone Nargis have not translated into any change in attitude in the area of politics and power-sharing.

Now ASEAN and the UN must do more as they take their first steps on Burmese soil after the disaster, especially Surin Pitsuan, ASEAN's new secretary-general who has a good knowledge of Burmese politics over the last two decades.

Although it is not the time for talking about politics in this early stage, Surin and Ban should not miss the opportunity to test the water for political dialogue and power-sharing and change the generals’ mindset before the 2010 election.

Htet Aung Kyaw is a senior journalist for the Oslo-Based Democratic Voice of Burma radio and TV station


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