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Laura Bush's Myanmar crusade
By Brian McCartan
MAE SOT, Thailand - United States First Lady Laura Bush's visit to the
Thai-Myanmar border on Thursday made for good photo opportunities but is
unlikely to translate into real change in Myanmar.
She traveled to the Thai border town of Mae Sot where she visited a refugee
camp and a medical clinic. Simultaneously in Bangkok, her husband, President
George W Bush, had a luncheon with nine exiled Myanmar activists and
journalists. The couple along with their daughter, Barbara, arrived in Thailand
for a two-day
stopover on the way to Friday's opening ceremony for the 2008 Summer Olympic
Games in Beijing.
The United States has taken a consistently hardline stance against Myanmar's
military regime and the Bushes took the opportunity to highlight the issue
while in Thailand. Such criticism of Myanmar has sometimes been at odds with
the Thai government which, according to recently appointed Foreign Minister Tej
Bunnang, still maintains a policy of non-intervention in its western neighbor's
internal affairs. The Thai government would rather deal with Myanmar through
the mechanisms of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), but did
not raise a fuss about the Bushes' tough statements towards Myanmar.
America's Myanmar policy under Bush's government is one of the administration's
few foreign endeavors that has not generated intense criticism. In 2003,
Congress passed the Freedom and Democracy Act after an attack on pro-democracy
leader Aung San Suu Kyi's motorcade by government-organized thugs that left
several of her supporters dead. A 2005 speech by George W Bush placed Myanmar
with Cuba, Belarus, Iran, North Korea and Zimbabwe in what he described as
"outposts of tyranny". Economic sanctions banning new US investment in Myanmar
have been extended and new sanctions put in place during his tenure.
The policy has hardened over the past year in the wake of the military regime's
violent crackdown on street protestors in September 2007 and its inept handling
of relief efforts following the devastation caused by Cyclone Nargis in early
May. In December 2007, Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Congressional Gold
Medal, America's highest civilian honor. Economic sanctions meanwhile have been
strengthened by including prominent businessmen close to the generals and their
companies on a black list. The US government and activists allege those listed
are helping to finance the regime and its repressive activities.
The latest sanctions were signed into law on July 29 by Bush. Known as the
Burma Jade Act, they target trade in Myanmar's gems and precious stones,
including jade. As many as 10 Myanmar companies, including some wholly or
partly owned by the government, were also added to the sanctions list.
While Bush and his administration have moved diplomatically and financially
against the junta, the First Lady has emerged as America's most outspoken and
prominent critic of the rulers of Myanmar, also referred to a Burma. Laura Bush
has said that she first became interested in the country through an interest in
Aung San Suu Kyi and her writings. During a May 2007 interview with Time
Magazine's Hannah Beech, Mrs Bush said, "Like many people, especially women, I
got interested because of Aung San Suu Kyi, and I learned about Burma and how
she represents the hopes of the people of Burma, and how those hopes were being
dashed by her house arrest and the fact that her party won the elections and
never had the opportunity to have power at all."
Mrs Bush's first public foray into Myanmar activism came in September 2006,
when she convened a roundtable discussion on Myanmar during the opening of the
UN General Assembly to highlight the repressive situation in Myanmar. Since
then she has met with activists and prominent exiles in New York and in
Washington. In May 2007, Mrs Bush together with 16 women senators, drafted and
signed a letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon calling for increased UN
pressure to release Aung San Suu Kyi. The US president echoed this call during
his address in Bangkok on Thursday.
In June, at the invitation of the First Lady, a delegation from the Ethnic
Nationalities Council, an organization representing several opposition ethnic
minority groups, met with Mrs Bush, congressmen and administration officials.
Later that month, Mrs Bush wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal lamenting
the continued detention of Aung San Suu Kyi on her 62nd birthday.
The First Lady's criticism of Myanmar's ruling generals became even stronger
following the violent suppression of protestors in September 2007. Widespread
demonstrations had broken out across Myanmar in anger of a 500% hike in fuel
prices, which led to protest marches led by Buddhist monks that began calling
for political change and the release of political prisoners, including Aung San
Suu Kyi. Government troops and riot police moved in and eventually dispersed
the demonstrations with bullets, truncheons and teargas. Thousands were
arrested and, according to the UN, 31 killed.
Joining international outrage over the violence, Mrs Bush made a rare move by a
first lady by calling the UN secretary general to directly discuss the
situation. During the call she reportedly expressed deep concern over the
deteriorating situation and put the UN on notice that if it stayed quiet it was
condoning the abuses. An October 2 statement by the First Lady referred to the
crackdown as "deplorable acts of violence".
Later that month, Ban telephoned Mrs Bush to update her on a recent meeting
with the junta by Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari. This seems to have prompted
the First Lady to write a strongly worded op-ed which appeared the next day,
again in the right-leaning Wall Street Journal, calling for the removal of the
military regime. She wrote, "This swelling outrage presents the generals with
an urgent choice; Be part of Burma's peaceful transition to democracy, or get
out of the way for a government of the Burmese people's choosing."
Storm of criticism
The aftermath of Cyclone Nargis which hit lower Myanmar on May 2 resulted in
another surprise move by the First Lady. On May 5, President Bush stepped aside
and Laura Bush made her first appearance at the podium in the White House
briefing room, to talk about the cyclone in Myanmar, which killed an estimated
140,000. The room is more commonly used by presidents and their senior aides to
give briefings and policy announcements and this event thus marked a highly
unusual move amid a high-profile foreign policy moment.
Mrs Bush openly condemned Myanmar's generals for their handling of the crisis
and accused the junta of preventing the US and other nations from sending in
aid to victims. She went on to accuse the regime of purposely failing to warn
people of the imminent danger of the cyclone. (American relief aid was later
made conditional on the acceptance of an independent assessment made by US
disaster experts.) She also lambasted the generals for going ahead with plans
for a nationwide referendum on a controversial new constitution just days after
the disaster hit.
These outspoken comments drew criticism from both American and international
political observers, as well as segments of the Myanmar exile community, for
showing a lack of compassion. They also claimed that Mrs Bush's comments risked
angering the regime and closing any small opening for foreign aid and relief
workers. The US, although continuing to be critical of the regime, suspended
some aspects of its sanctions to provide relief and the use of military
aircraft to bring aid supplies into Myanmar.
A little over three months after this briefing, Laura Bush is back in the
Myanmar spotlight with her visit to Mae Sot. Her trip, which seems to have
succeeded in its aim of gaining more international attention for the
humanitarian and political situation in Myanmar, was this time bereft of strong
political statements. Amid heavy security, Mrs Bush travelled to Mae La refugee
camp on Thursday morning. The camp, established in 1984, houses around 40,000
mostly Karen refugees from Myanmar and is one of several camps along the border
which contain a total of some 140,000 refugees.
Human rights activists say the refugees are the targets of Myanmar Army
campaign to drive out insurgent groups that has largely focused on civilians
and resulted in systematic killings, rapes and burning of villages and crops.
According to a