Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Bush Set to Meet Burmese Activists

US President George W. Bush, left, and first lady Laura Bush wave upon their arrival at a Seoul military airport in Seongnam, South Korea, the first stop on their week-long visit to Asia. (Photo: AP)

The Irrawaddy News

US President George W Bush will have a private lunch with Burmese activists in exile in Bangkok on Thursday in a stopover on his way to the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics.

“He will have a lunch in Bangkok with Burmese activists and hear their stories,” said Dennis Wilder, a press officer at the White House. “And then he will be interviewed by the press in Thailand that broadcast into Burma, so that he can give a message directly to the Burmese people.”

First lady Laura Bush will travel to Mae Sot, near the Thailand-Burma border, where she will visit the Mae La Refugee Camp, the largest on the border. She will also visit a refugee clinic operated by Dr Cynthia Maung, according to the White House.

“The US policy on Burma is already very heavily influenced by [Burmese] activists,” said John Virgoe, the Southeast Asia director of the International Crisis Group. “I am not surprised he is interested to meet with activists.”

Nyan Win, a spokesperson of Burma’s main opposition party, the National League for Democracy, told The Irrawaddy on Monday that the party welcomed Bush’s meeting with exiled activists.

Thakin Chan Tun, a veteran politician and former Burmese ambassador to China, said, “President Bush’s meeting with Burmese activists shows how he and his wife strongly support Burma’s democracy movement.”

The US administration has strongly supported the democracy struggle in military-ruled Burma since 1988, the year thousands of demonstrators were killed by the military regime.

Bush has been under criticism by human rights activists around the world because of his decision to attend the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics.

Virgoe said the US is not very outspoken about human rights in China. “When we talk about China, of course, human rights is not on top of the [US] agenda,” he said.

During Bush’s eight years in office, the US has witnessed several important events in Burmese history. The democracy movement leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her convoy were ambushed in Depayin in Sagaing Division, northern Burma in May 2003 by thugs, backed by the junta. More than 100 people were reportedly killed. After the attack, Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest.

“The [Burmese] military authorities should release Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters immediately,” Bush said in early June 2003. “We have urged Burmese officials to release all political prisoners and to offer their people a better way of life, a life offering freedom and economic progress.”

In July 2003, Bush signed economic sanctions against the military regime. “These measures reaffirm to the people of Burma that the United States stands with them in their struggle for democracy and freedom,” Bush said.

In September 2007, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators led by Buddhist monks marched in Rangoon, the largest city in the country and many other towns, calling for a better life and national reconciliation. Burmese troops killed at least 30 people, including a Japanese photojournalist. Thousands of monks and activists were arrested.

Since the brutal crackdown in 2007, the US has put fresh “targeted sanctions” on the Burmese generals and their cronies. The new sanctions affect many state-controlled businesses and large businesses doing deals with the junta.

Deadly Cyclone Nargis hammered Burma on May 2-3, causing an estimated 134,000 deaths. The junta stalled for weeks, blocking large shipments of foreign aid and access to the affected area by foreign relief experts.

Bush sent a group of US Navy vessels, led by the aircraft carrier USS Essex, to stand by near Burma. Some aid from the vessels was shipped into the country by air, but the regime denied the massive amounts of aid the US was ready to provide to the devastated Irrawaddy delta.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, said the impact of US policies on Burma is limited. “He [George W Bush] needs to put pressure on China, India, Thailand and Asean on the Burma issue. He needs to put more pressure on countries that trade with Burma,” he added.

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