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Originally published May 7, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 7, 2008 at 3:34 PM

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Cyclone could endanger Myanmar's military rule

The deadly cyclone that ripped into Myanmar poses a threat to the stranglehold on power of the country's ruling generals, becoming a force...

The Associated Press

BANGKOK, Thailand — The deadly cyclone that ripped into Myanmar poses a threat to the stranglehold on power of the country's ruling generals, becoming a force for change more powerful than huge pro-democracy demonstrations and international sanctions.

Few people think revolution is in the air, not while battered survivors are still burying the thousands of dead.

By an accident of timing, the cyclone hit just a week before Saturday's referendum on a new constitution. The junta hopes its proposed charter passes smoothly despite opposition from feisty democracy activists, but now it may face angry citizens in no mood to approve anything the government likes, even though the vote has been postponed in some areas hit by the storm.

No matter what happens in the referendum, the higher the storm's death toll climbs — and the less effective the government's relief effort proves — the bigger the potential for undermining the military's mandate to rule.

People in the region are notably superstitious, and the bad aura surrounding a tragedy often attaches itself to their governments. Rulers are considered responsible for natural conditions and a disaster can be viewed as a sign that officials have lost the "mandate of heaven."

Myanmar's generals have long ruled by fear, especially since thousands died when the army crushed democracy demonstrations in 1988. The lesson was reinforced last fall when new democracy protests led by Buddhist monks were suppressed, with at least 31 people killed and thousands arrested.

Natural disasters have a long history of altering political landscapes. The failure of Mexico's ruling party to adequately respond to Mexico City's 1985 earthquake is widely believed to have sparked its eventual fall from power. Fury over Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle's theft of aid money after a 1972 earthquake fueled the Sandinista uprising that eventually overthrew the government.

By contrast, earthquakes in Pakistan in 2005, Turkey in 1999 and Greece a few weeks later spurred political rapprochements when neighboring enemies reached out to help.

"Catastrophic 'natural' disasters create the conditions for potential political change — often at the hands of a discontented civil society," wrote Mark Pelling, a human geography expert at King's College London, in a research paper. "A state's incapacity to respond adequately to a disaster can create a temporary power vacuum, and potentially a watershed moment."

In contrast to the regime's decisive response to any hint of political opposition, it has been laggard in getting help to the cyclone victims.

While the military and other government authorities kept a low profile Monday in the storm-battered streets of the capital, civilians and Buddhist monks banded together, wielding axes and knives to clear roads of tree trunks and branches torn down by the cyclone's 120-mph winds.

"Where are all those uniformed people who are always ready to beat civilians?" one man complained to an Associated Press reporter, refusing to be identified for fear of retribution. "They should come out in full force and help clean up the areas and restore electricity."

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The need for a major relief effort poses a dilemma for the junta: how much assistance to accept from abroad.

Allowing a major influx of foreigners carries risks, injecting unwanted outside influence and giving the aid givers rather than the junta credit for a recovery. But keeping out international aid would focus blame squarely on the military should it fail to restore people's livelihoods.

The most extreme change potentially could come within the military itself, providing an opening for more moderate officers to expand their influence if relief failures discredit the hard-line leaders at the top.

Material from the Chicago Tribune is included in this report.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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