Burma's Woes: A Threat to the Junta

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Jules Motte / Abaca

People wait for humanitarian help along the road to Bogalay in the Irrawady Delta, Burma.

I spent a week reporting from remote towns in the cyclone-ravaged Irrawaddy delta before the Burmese junta began its crackdown. Foreign aid workers, diplomats and undercover journalists were expelled from the disaster area or barred entry at police or military checkpoints. Beyond those checkpoints, Burmese were suffering and dying — 2.4 million people urgently need help, says the United Nations. But the junta's restrictions made it almost impossible for outsiders to witness it.

Within days, a British colleague and I were deported for secretly reporting on the disaster. I wondered: why hadn't we been kicked out the previous September, when we had covered the junta's violent suppression of street protests led by Buddhist monks? Answer: because the generals are far more worried by the political implications of the cyclone — and they should be. The combination of popular anger and the junta's reluctant but necessary acceptance of foreign assistance may yet combine to unseat a seemingly unshakeable regime.

First, the popular anger. "Chinese hearts beat as one," went the national slogan after the Sichuan earthquake. But Burmese hearts ache for millions of cyclone victims neglected by a regime with no heart at all. Countless private citizens are driving trucks loaded with food, water and clothes into the delta. Monks are heading there too, in what could become their biggest mobilization since last September's protests. The regime's expulsion of foreigners has meant that international aid agencies in the area are staffed almost entirely by Burmese, many from other parts of the country. News of the extent of the suffering is spreading by word of mouth, paralleling the Chinese media's unprecedented coverage of the earthquake. Thousands more are watching a Burmese-made documentary circulating secretly in Rangoon containing searing testimony from survivors of the cyclone. Few people remained untouched.

The government claims it is doing its part. "We have already finished our first phase of emergency relief. We are going on to the second phase, the rebuilding stage," announced Burmese Prime Minister Thein Sein. But with so many Burmese witnessing first-hand the suffering of their compatriots — and passing the word on — never has state propaganda been less convincing.

The Burmese populace is also seeing how effectively the Chinese authorities dealt with catastrophe in Sichuan, with People's Liberation Army soldiers digging through the rubble and President Hu Jintao meeting survivors. "I'm surprised the Burmese [military] didn't take the opportunity to show they are a people's army too," says a veteran Western aid worker in Rangoon. Instead, Gen. Than Shwe, Burma's head of state, stayed put in the junta's half-built new capital of Naypyidaw, which was unaffected by the cyclone. Only on Sunday did he finally venture into the Irrawaddy delta to meet some of its more presentable survivors. Then — apparently following China's lead — the junta announced three days of national mourning beginning Tuesday. These are the first signs that the junta is beginning to realize both the scale of the disaster and its emotional impact on millions of Burmese.

Gen. Than Shwe won't be dislodged by post-cyclone anger alone. Zaganar, a Burmese comedian and democratic activist who was briefly jailed for his role in last September's protests, believes the cyclone might have even strengthened the military's hand. Before Cyclone Nargis, people were "ready to rise up" over rising prices and the regime's obsession with holding its rigged referendum, says Zaganar. "But this is the luck of the generals. Nargis helped them because people are shocked, afraid. No one can concentrate on politics."

But the generals cannot rest easy. The Irrawaddy region accounts for perhaps a quarter of Burma's rice-growing area. Nargis devastated one harvest and made the next crop nearly impossible to plant. "A town is well-fed only when the countryside prospers," runs an old Burmese saying. And when the countryside is devastated? Already the cost of rice in Rangoon is rising and many stores are informally rationing it. Add to this soaring global food prices and the junta's post-Nargis vow to continue its ambitious rice-exporting program, and Burma faces a looming crisis. The rising cost of basic commodities has triggered unrest before — and will do so again.

And let's not forget: Burma had a humanitarian crisis well before Nargis struck. Malnutrition is widespread. So are malaria and tuberculosis. The healthcare system barely functions. This was exacerbated not only by the junta's refusal to accept foreign aid but by another factor. For too long, influential lobbies in Washington and elsewhere have essentially argued that depriving Burma of humanitarian aid will hasten the junta's demise. Now, the opposite could prove true. The influx of foreign aid and foreign experts will force Burma to engage with the world as never before. A donor conference on Saturday will bring scores more foreign delegates to Rangoon. The junta's agreement to accept more help from its Asian neighbors is a small concession. But it is still one more concession than the world got after the intense diplomatic pressure brought to bear after last September's protests.

The day I was expelled from Burma, The New Light of Myanmar,* a state-run newspaper, had a small story buried at the foot of page six. It announced a doubling of the estimated numbers of dead and missing to more than 130,000. The final death toll could top 200,000, said a British government report last week. Save the Children are warning that thousands of children could starve. If there is a scrap of solace in all this, here it is: the junta's pitiless response to the cyclone is alienating the very people it depends upon for its own survival. One young Special Branch officer at the airport seemed embarrassed to be expelling a foreign journalist whose only crime was trying to publicize the plight of Burmese disaster victims. "Please forgive me," he kept telling me. "Please forgive me." I now realize he wasn't embarrassed at all. He was ashamed.

*The junta that rules the country unilaterally decreed changes in place names, including Myanmar for Burma and Yangon for the former capital Rangoon. The U.S. State Department has not recognized these changes. TIME has chosen to retain the name Burma.