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Disaster may loosen junta's grip in Burma (Myanmar)

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"It could be quite catalytic, like the [2004] tsunami in Aceh," says John Virgoe, the International Crisis Group's Southeast Asia project director in Jakarta, Indonesia. "Indonesia does show how game-changing these disasters can be: The tsunami allowed both sides to say, 'Let's put aside our differences,' " he adds, referring to a cease-fire that ended a running conflict between the Indonesian Army and rebel separatists in Aceh.

Mr. Virgoe and others, however, are quick to caution against drawing a direct parallel to Burma, which has shown disdain for dialogue with political opponents and sent mixed signals about even accepting foreign aid workers.

On Wednesday, as the death toll topped 22,500, relief agencies said they had still not received visas to enter Burma, despite a preliminary agreement from Burma allowing foreign aid workers.

"We have a team of five emergency relief members in Thailand. And they have applied for visas. But they are on standby," says Elizabeth Byrs, a spokesperson for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Geneva.

With the UN declaring cyclone Nargis "a major disaster," saying up to 1 million may now be homeless, any delays in international aid could add to the death toll. More than 60,000 have been declared missing and are presumed dead.

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