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In Cyclone's Wake, Burmese Military Government Appears Strengthened


Some Burmese had expressed hope that Cyclone Nargis would lead to the collapse of the military government. The cyclone, which hit Burma three months ago, devastated much of the country. More than 144,000 people are either dead or missing. Hundreds of thousands have been left homeless. For weeks, the military government blocked international aid to survivors. Even now, aid agencies say the military impedes their work. But some analysts, and many Burmese, say the storm may have strengthened the military. Heda Bayron has this report from Burma, prepared by Pros Laput.

Many private volunteers in Burma collect donations for the survivors of Cyclone Nargis. Here, in the capital Rangoon, donations are being prepared for delivery to a monastery in the hard-hit Irrawaddy Delta.

Not everyone in the city feels free to help. This taxi driver volunteers to deliver donations. But he says there are risks.

"Just now volunteers have difficulty helping the cyclone victims. Sometimes the government prohibits it," he said. "Sometimes the government checks the volunteers, their biography, their profiles. If they are members of some political parties, the government take [arrest] that people [person]."

Several prominent citizens have been arrested for doing aid work.

"…The repression is so deep-seated and so well-organized and because of the lack of civil society, the lack of other competing institutions that could check on this kind of harsh authoritarianism, harsh dictatorship, people don't have much of a choice," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, head of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in neighboring Thailand.

In the capital, it is business as usual. This illegal market is a source of suppressed materials - like photos that show what the government does not want people to know.

A Nargis CD collection contains gruesome pictures and videos of people who died in the cyclone. Images that might have sparked anger at the government. But it didn't happen.

"A lot of people had some hopes, some dreams, speculations about a broad-based uprising, that Nargis would be the beginning of the end of the military," said Ponsudhirak. "I think the opposite is taking place….It has allowed for the military to entrench even more. It has made people even more secondary and obedient to government preferences."

Just days after the storm, the military held a referendum on a new constitution. Human rights activists call the vote a sham. The government says voters overwhelmingly approved the document.

Today, there is no strong opposition to Burma's government. The monks who led last September's uprising were either arrested or forced into hiding. Most of the others retreated to the monasteries. They have been key in delivering donations to victims of the cyclone.

"I think their priorities have become something else, about saving lives rather than about overthrowing a government and expressing grievances at a government through a general demonstration," Ponsudhirak said.

And as the monks recede from view, people like the taxi driver fear the storm will also recede as an issue for Burma's people - and for its government.

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