WASHINGTON - Burma's military junta will seek up to $11.7 billion in reconstruction aid at a donor conference today in Rangoon, raising fears among human rights activists and Western governments that Tropical Cyclone Nargis could become a diplomatic and financial windfall for the reclusive regime.
Burma has a gross domestic product of about $15 billion, and Burma officials have not indicated how they reached their damage assessment when hundreds of thousands of victims of the May 2-3 cyclone have not received assistance.
But the nation of about 55 million people is rich in natural resources, with major Asian regional players such as China, Japan, India, and Thailand long battling for access and influence.
Meanwhile, international financial institutions such as the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank - which have not made loans to Burma for decades - issued statements last week suggesting that reconstruction aid could once again flow to the nation.
Aid workers geared up yesterday to go into Burma's hard-hit Irrawaddy Delta after the ruling junta vowed to open its doors to workers of all nationalities. The cyclone left about 78,000 people dead and another 56,000 missing.
An estimate released yesterday by the UN said that while about 42 percent of the 2.4 million people affected by the storm had received some kind of emergency assistance, only 23 percent of the 2 million people living in the worst-hit areas had been reached.
The ability of outside aid workers to assess the situation will be crucial in securing pledges from foreign governments, and the junta's about-face was seen as a concession to get more aid for the 45 potential donor nations meeting today in Rangoon.
The donor conference, organized by the United Nations and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, will be held on the same day the house arrest of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi expires. The military, which refused to recognize the landslide victory of her party in 1990, is expected to renew her detention, as it has annually for the past five years.
"The junta has skillfully used ASEAN and the UN to set up a bidding war among the major powers that compete with each other," said Michael Green, President Bush's senior director for Asia affairs on the National Security Council until 2006. The weekend conference could prove "a real turning point," he said.
Foreign Secretary David Miliband of Britain acknowledged the risks in an interview. "We are not going to allow this to become a ramp by which the regime resuscitates or reinforces its political position," he said.
Burma's financial situation is remarkably opaque. Though much of the country is desperately poor, the military junta has enriched itself with revenue from natural gas fields that bring in about $2 billion a year, boosting the country's reserves to $3.5 billion, analysts said.
The government has assigned 43 companies - many with close ties to the military - to receive lucrative reconstruction contracts, according to a report in Irrawaddy, a Thai magazine that focuses on Burma.
Sean Turnell, a professor at Macquarie University in Australia and a specialist on Burma's economy, said the government exploits the tremendous gap between the official and unofficial exchange rates to hide the $200 million a month in revenue it receives from the gas fields. He estimated that the cyclone caused $3 billion in damage, or about 20 percent of the GDP.
"But Burma doesn't need money, it does not need cash. What it needs is the very thing it is refusing: expertise," Turnell said. "If the regime had the will to reconstruct the delta, it has the cash."
Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.