May 6, 2008 / 5:40 AM / 12 years ago

Cyclone exposes myth of "strong" Myanmar military

YANGON (Reuters) - For decades, Myanmar’s ruling generals have defended the military’s iron grip on power as vital to keeping the former Burma intact and on the road to prosperity. This week’s devastating cyclone, which has killed at least 15,000 people in the Irrawaddy delta, has exposed the fragility of that myth with potentially major long-term implications for the junta, analysts say.

Many survivors of Cyclone Nargis’s 190 km (120 miles) per hour winds criticized the army for a sluggish response, especially when compared with its willingness to flood the streets of Yangon with troops to crush last September’s monk-led protests.

“The regime has lost a golden opportunity to send the soldiers as soon as the storm stopped to win the heart and soul of people,” one retired civil servant told Reuters.

“But where are the soldiers and police? They were very quick and aggressive when there were protests in the streets last year,” he said.

Even though the junta appears to have overcome its deep distrust of the outside world in saying it welcomed foreign assistance, many residents of the city of 5 million are reluctant to believe it.

“They can’t handle it on their own but I’m afraid they are too proud to accept assistance from the international community,” one resident of Yangon told Reuters.

“Priority should be given to relief and resettlement, but I’m afraid the present situation is very bad.”

In its coverage of the most devastating cyclone to hit Asia since 143,000 people were killed in Bangladesh in 1991, official media has given prominence to the military response.

State television has shown footage of top generals handing out relief supplies at Buddhist temples or climbing into helicopters, and soldiers hacking away at fallen trees with axes and hand saws.

But many in the country of 53 million people are likely to see such images as pure propaganda and are unlikely to be convinced, said political analyst Aung Naing Oo, who fled to Thailand after a brutally crushed 1988 uprising.

“They often want to show the people that they have enough in the country to handle any disaster. This is the message they always send out — we don’t need help,” he told Reuters in Bangkok.

“But the myth they have projected about being well prepared has been totally blown away,” he said. “This could have a tremendous political impact in the long term.”

Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Darren Schuettler and Alex Richardson

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