07 August 2008
Bangkok – U.S. President George Bush’s much anticipated meeting with a group of Burmese dissidents this afternoon left those in attendance with little doubt as to his sincerity, but also uncertain and divided as to how the United States can best assist in finding a solution for the country’s ongoing crisis.
Following the President’s one hour meeting today in Bangkok with a group of around ten Burmese from different ethnic, professional and activist backgrounds, Win Min, a lecturer at Chiang Mai’s Payap University, summed up the encounter by saying: “Many people in Burma are expecting results, change, but we cannot expect too much from one meeting.”
Win Min proceeded to explain that today’s encounter was important in that it challenges the incoming U.S. administration – Bush is to step down in mid-January 2009 – to act and build upon the foundations of a Burma policy left in place by the outgoing President.
“I’d be very surprised,” Bush commented afterward during a panel interview with Burmese language media outlets with respect to whether a new U.S. administration would drastically alter the country’s policy vis-à-vis Burma. “Freedom for Burma is a bipartisan issue.”
“As long as there is human suffering like there is here in Burma this will be of strategic importance to the United States,” the President elaborated to the four reporters – referring to the current Burmese regime as “backward.”
Praising the interest that the President and First Lady, Laura Bush, have taken in Burma, another of the handful of selected dissidents remarked, “He and Laura Bush do not just follow the Burma issue, but also personally believe in the cause of Burma.”
“Today was not just a showcase, it was totally business, with issues seriously discussed,” continued the one delegate on condition of anonymity. “The President emphasized Burma very much on this trip, more so than China and other regional countries.”
However, even the voice of this upbeat appraisal sounded a cautionary warning, telling Mizzima: “He [Bush] agrees that Burma’s political movement is homegrown and that Burma must solve its own problems. But the U.S. government will be at the forefront of support for such a movement.”
Further questioning just where the road ahead will lead, well-known observer Bo Bo Kyaw Nyein stipulated, “Bush wants to hear our opinions, and because of this it was helpful to some extent. Bush gave an ear to the ideas and experiences of those in attendance.”
Presenting an argument for increased engagement on the part of Washington with Naypyitaw, Chiang Mai-based political analyst Aung Naing Oo left disappointed. “Something like what I said didn’t go far.”
“They [George and Laura Bush] have made Burma a cause. U.S. policy is ethical, and you can’t expect much from ethical policy,” Aung Naing Oo added.
In his meeting with Burmese language media outlets that followed, Bush was pressed on whether the hardline stance of the United States was counter-productive; Bush decidedly dismissed any such notion.
As to whether the refusal of Burmese authorities to permit U.S. aid into the country following Cyclone Nargis in May was in direct response to a hostile U.S. policy, Bush postured, “He [Senior General Than Shwe] was in denial to an extent of realities on the ground.” Thus, the President reasoned, the junta’s reaction was not necessarily preordained by the U.S. position.
“I don’t think it would have been helpful to the Burmese if there had been a conflict over the delivery of aid,” the President proceeded in explaining the American unwillingness to directly intervene inside Burma for the purpose of aid delivery. “What we don’t want to do is compound a difficult situation. We were trying to make the problem better not worse.”
Continuing in his defense of current U.S. policy, “If I thought it [the lifting of sanctions] would…make…help us achieve the objective…you know…by changing the relationship with the government…you know…I’d give it serious consideration,” the President summarized regarding a sanctions platform he has consistently favored enhancing in the face of Burmese junta intransigence.
The President and First Lady are now on their way to Beijing – argued by many to be the Burmese junta’s most important supporter – to attend the opening ceremony of the 29th Summer Olympiad, a trip which Bush insists is entirely apolitical and dedicated solely to the love of sport.
But before leaving Bangkok Bush did tell the Burmese media, “I hope I can use my good relations with Chinese leadership to convince them that the way forward is for there to be more civic participation, citizen participation, in the future of the country [Burma].”
Describing his goal for Burma as the advent of “Burmese style democracy,” the President told his Burmese audience exactly what they can expect from the United States during his last months in office, “I make no promises to your listeners except that we will continue to try.”