With a spiraling death toll and fears of spreading disease in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, the catastrophe in Myanmar may appear to offer little cause for celebration. Yet the soothsayers that surround Than Shwe - Myanmar's most powerful general - are suddenly the toast of Naypyidaw, the country's new capital cut from jungles north of Yangon three years ago. Well-placed diplomatic and political sources speak of an air of jubilation and relief surrounding the leadership that Naypyidaw was spared by Cyclone Nargis, which wrecked Yangon with 190km/h winds and swept a huge wave 40km up the Irrawaddy Delta. The few aid workers now reaching the most isolated parts of the delta talk of a sea of bloated corpses and entire towns wiped from the face of the Earth. 'The word we are getting from up there in Naypyidaw is that the storm has proved that the astrologers have succeeded in restoring Than Shwe's karma,' one veteran Yangon-based diplomat said. 'The world may think he is weaker now ... but inside the leadership, he is even stronger than before.' The shift to Naypyidaw spoke volumes about the state of the regime, considered one of the region's most isolated and paranoid. Acting in secrecy, Than Shwe drew on all his training as a propaganda and psychological warfare officer to draw up plans for the shift. He was determined to further enclose and enshrine his rule after purging the more flexible Prime Minister Khin Nyunt and his allies in 2004. Initially outlined to only an elite group of generals on the State Peace and Development Council, Than Shwe also consulted astrologers, basing the timing and logistics of the move on favourable dates and numbers. The soothsayers constantly stressed the importance of the move, issuing dark warnings if the regime stayed in Yangon. Foreign envoys and many civil servants were kept in the dark, only hearing confirmation after the move started. Outsiders given access to Naypyidaw - meaning 'abode of kings' in Burmese - talk of an eerie, partially complete place, devoid of life. Two compounds split between civilians and military isolate the leadership even more. That isolation is telling as the world ponders the junta's next steps to solve a humanitarian crisis that some predict could see the death toll rise to half a million people - a toll far higher than the Asian tsunami in 2004. So far their response is raising far more questions than answers. Last week, Foreign Minister Nyan Win made the rare step of going on state television to confirm that more than 10,000 had died over the weekend. The plea went out for United Nations and regional assistance. Yet nearly a week later, aid flows are merely a trickle as the regime reverts to habitual suspicion and recalcitrance. After calling for help, officials in state media were claiming the situation was back to normal - even as Yangon residents remained without clean water and power. Last Friday, officials seized two plane-loads of critical aid flown to Yangon airport by the United Nations. Aid workers - including relief experts from the United Nations World Food Programme - remain trapped in Bangkok without visas. Emergency food and water supplies are pilling up in military warehouses in Thailand. Senior UN experts have described the situation as 'unprecedented' in the history of international relief efforts. Aid workers, diplomats and regional politicians are dumb-founded at the apparently wilful neglect and callousness of regime. One normally reserved Asian envoy in Yangon described the actions as 'bordering on evil'. Just as the strange shift to Naypyidaw provided a rare window on the mindset of the junta, its response to Cyclone Nargis is also striking. Above all else - even the lives of its people in times of emergency - the Myanmese military dictatorship is concerned with survival. A regime whose propagandists constantly demand the smashing of unseen outside 'stooges', 'plots' and 'cliques', spreading such xenophobia across bill-boards and state media, sees only trouble in allowing international aid workers access to the country. Put simply, it wants the aid but not the aid workers. But, given the logistical expertise required to efficiently move large volumes of food and supplies to those who need it most, the two are considered inseparable. 'Without aid workers, there is no aid, it is as simple as that,' World Food Programme spokesman Paul Risley said. The priorities of the regime were also brought into sharp relief by its insistence to push ahead with yesterday's referendum on a new constitution. Last Friday, even as death toll estimates were climbing exponentially, the state's New Light of Myanmar trumpeted the constitutional vote. 'To approve the state constitution is the national duty of the entire people,' it stated in a banner headline. 'Let us all cast 'yes' votes in the nation's interest.' The poll means thousands of soldiers who could otherwise be deployed in relief efforts are having to instead secure a poll widely derided in the international community. The poll is a core part of a seven-point 'roadmap' geared to pleasing foreign critics by leading to a full multiparty election in 2011. Such an election is part of the long-delayed 'national reconciliation' - an effort to finally heal the wounds of the military's bloody suppression of the victorious democratic movement led by Aung San Suu Kyi in 1988. More than 3,000 opposition protesters died in the crackdown to ensure what is now 46 years of unbroken military rule. Much of that period has been spent in the stubborn isolation mandated by the 'Burmese Road to Socialism' of the late military rule Ne Win. And the generals seem determined to further secure that rule, effectively stacking the constitutional deck in their favour. The charter delivers them a guaranteed 25 per cent of future parliamentary seats, allowing them to block future changes while enshrining the general's right to suspend democratic freedoms at any time. Will that survival at all costs be threatened by the winds of Nargis? Activists and foreign diplomats are all scrutinising developments for signs of weakness, or even collapse, but few are optimistic. Speaking to the Sunday Morning Post from Yangon, National League for Democracy (NLD) spokesman U Nyan Win said his party was detecting strong rumours of splits in the regime, with some younger military figures pushing Than Shwe to get the aid flowing. 'We still haven't confirmed anything,' he said. 'The rumours are strong of internal trouble but our first hope is that somehow it leads to lives being saved. That has to be the priority above politics.' 'In the longer term we hope that this crisis can only speed national reconciliation, showing the need for the generals to work to bring the country back together. But we are not hopeful.' Embattled opposition figures inside and in exile have learned hard lessons about the dangers of wishful thinking. The protests across Yangon, Mandalay and other major cities last September, led unusually by the nation's Buddhist monks, were the largest since 1988. The crackdown was less bloody than 20 years earlier yet still saw protesters shot in the streets and military intelligence units smash their way into monasteries in the hunt for agitators - an unprecedented act in the deeply Buddhist nation. Yet the protests have so far failed dent the general's grip on power, just as on-going economic sanctions from the European Union and the US have yet to bring them to their knees. Likewise neither Myanmar's partners in the 10-nation Association of South East Asian Nations nor allies such as China, Russia and India have succeeded in forcing the junta to open up. That said, the rising prices and worsening poverty in one of the region's poorest nations are only expected to intensify given the damage to the delta, Myanmar's rice bowl and a key source of exports. And even if further protests break out, most expect them to end in yet more bloodshed with the regime still in power. Increasingly, seasoned diplomatic analysts in Myanmar compare it to North Korea, whose hermit regime has repeatedly shown a lethal contempt for its population in times of crisis, reacting only when its tiny ruling elite feels the pinch. 'Unless the gilded cage of the military elite is rattled, they just don't care,' said one western envoy. Veteran NLD leader in exile Nyo Ohn Myint spoke of such contempt as he received reports from the Delta in his monitoring post at Mae Sot on the Thai-Myanmar border. 'We hear the military is simply letting the bodies wash out to sea ... that is their way of keeping the death toll down. They must know they are showing their worst face to the world.' On a map, Mae Sot is closer to Yangon and the delta than it is to Bangkok, which is just a few hours away by car. Yet the events of the past week have shown just how isolated and shut away parts of Myanmar remain. In Mae Sot this week, the Myanmese exiles have been watching a sliver of new moon rise in the west over the mountains marking the border. It is the same moon seen at dusk above Bangkok and other glittering cities in the region. Yet they know that over Myanmar, it rises above another world.