DENIS L. GRAY
[Source - tucsoncitizen.com]
BANGKOK, Thailand - The cyclone that devastated Myanmar's heartland has also roiled a political landscape dominated by the military for more than four decades.
Buddhist monks are regrouping after the battering they took nine months ago, civil society groups are emerging and foreign aid workers — often agents of political change in the wake of humanitarian crises — are present in unprecedented numbers.
The junta's grip on power remains absolute. But anger against the regime has probably never run so high.
"Perhaps incremental change will emerge from engagement on humanitarian problems," said Joel Charny, vice president of U.S.-based Refugees International who visited Myanmar just before the cyclone struck.
People were already incensed by the brutal suppression last September of anti-government demonstrators, including the country's revered, saffron-robed Buddhist monks.
Then came Cyclone Nargis, exposing the junta as inept and heartless, initially blocking international aid efforts and even now still hampering them.
"The people are blaming the government. They are responsible for many deaths. They don't care about right or wrong and they let people die just to hold onto power," said Aung Myoe, a 32-year-old driver in a comment typical of the mood in Yangon, Myanmar's largest city.
"In the `Saffron Revolution' they lost their Buddhist legitimacy; with the cyclone they lost whatever concept of efficacy they had with the public," said David Steinberg, a Myanmar expert at Georgetown.
Steinberg said the junta constantly trumpet achievements in modernizing the isolated and impoverished Southeast Asian nation formerly named Burma.
Analysts say these passions and emerging trends may in the longer term loosen the junta's grip on power. But for now it's business as usual: dissidents are arrested, a brutal campaign against ethnic minorities rages on and the military strides toward elections guaranteed to perpetuate its control.
But the 500,000-strong Buddhist monkhood, the only viable national institution after the army, is regaining strength and cohesion by assuming a leading role in helping cyclone survivors.
Their work is seconded by quietly burgeoning civil society groups, which Steinberg said could foster pluralism and democracy in the future. These groups include professional guilds, including those of actors and singers, charity organizations and loose associations of like-minded citizens.
So could the influx of foreign aid workers and agencies in what may be the most intense interaction Myanmar has experienced with the outside world since gaining independence from Great Britain in 1948.
The operative word is "incremental." Analysts don't foresee meaningful political changes in the short run, discounting a dramatic turn of events, such as social upheaval in face of cyclone-induced rice shortages, or a split within the military.
The regime will be hard-pressed to provide enough rice to keep its 400,000 troops and their families loyal and ensure that shortages, which could last several years, don't trigger major popular unrest as they have in the past, said Donald Seekins, a Myanmar watcher at Japan's Meio University.
Meanwhile, the junta marches forward along its so-called "road map to democracy." Elections are scheduled in 2010, based on a referendum-approved Constitution which guarantees the military 25 percent of parliamentary seats and power to run the country in event of a national emergency.
The cyclone response, the referendum and the extension of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's detention for a sixth year all sparked international outcry, but the absence of U.N. or other foreign action reassured the junta it needn't fear outside intervention.
"The people of Myanmar would have been happy if the United States or France invaded," said Ye Htun, a 30-year-old English teacher. "In Myanmar, the government is too strong and people are too scared. We can't do it alone."
Denis Gray, AP bureau chief in Bangkok, has covered Myanmar since the mid-1970s.
DENIS L. GRAY