Friday, 8 August 2008

Understanding the Bush interest in Burma

By Sein Win
7 August 200

(Mizzima) "President George Bush will meet Burmese activists during Thailand trip" – dominated headlines among Burma's exile community. It appeared to offer new hope after but the latest episode of sadness and frustration inside their motherland – the military government's stubborn and incapable efforts in the Nargis relief effort.

The message from the President spellbound and morally encouraged Burmese everywhere; as one of the best known personages in the world would personally be standing with the Burmese democratic movement. The message was clear: "You are with me."

But in truth, this period is not a happy one. On the 8th of August, Burma's democratic supporters will commemorate the 20th anniversary of the 8-8-88 people's uprising. Yet, two decades later, there are no distinct signs of reconciliation between the military generals and opposition camps. And in a further indication of the rift, both domestic and international aid for cyclone victims is falling dramatically.

And wait a minute! What is even more is that Bush's term in office will finish on January 20, 2009.

I cannot help but ask why Bush did not lunch with Burmese activists seven years ago? Maybe I am being too cynical, but a lot of questions creep into my mind regarding the motivation and impact of Bush's overture to Burmese dissidents at this time.

The Bush administration's foreign policy clout was at its peak after the September 11 terrorist attacks during the early months of his first term. If he had acted then, he could have done much on promoting democracy and freedom in Burma. However, a country like Burma was not a priority.

Additionally, back in Burma in 2001, Nobel Laureate and democratic opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was freed from her second stint of house arrest and negotiation talks commenced – even if of an on-again/off-again nature. It could have provided the best opportunity ever for a U.S.-led democratic consortium to pressure the Burmese regime to hasten democratic reforms.

I have no doubt of Bush's well-intentioned and heartfelt agenda of promoting democracy across the globe and "ending tyranny in our world." However, he has failed to transform personal politics into an effectual and prioritized state policy with regard to Burma.

Of course the President and First Lady, Laura Bush, have on occasion held personal meetings and video conferences with some Burmese activists. But the political landscape of the latter half of 2001 had since changed. The Iraq war of 2003, which has proven a distinct failure in bringing democracy and stability to Iraq, has caused the once unchallenged position of the United States in the post-Cold War era to quietly, but increasingly, be challenged by the likes of China and Russia.

It would be premature to say a multi-polar world has come into existence, but China and Russia have reigned in the early days of a United States taking the fight to the world's illiberal regimes.

In Burma too, 2003 was a fateful year. It was then that the Depayin killings occurred. In the ensuing fallout, possibly the most moderate general in the Burmese junta and a potential force for reform, Khin Nyunt, was ousted by senior hardliners – who have since enacted an ever more radical political line. Increasingly, it appears that Burma's generals can hide, protected, behind neighboring big brother China within the context of global politics.

The onset of active interest on the part of the President and First Lady in the wake of the Depayin massacre demonstrated just how distant Burma had been a foreign policy priority of the United States.

Laura Bush had to have a press conference with a Burma map in her background, while the President struggled with the correct pronunciation, and order, of Aung San Suu Kyi's name.

But the President and First Lady's outward interest in the plight of Burma in the waning days of their time in the White House is not entirely an act without potential long-term – and positive – repercussions.

The next United States administration can learn from the experiences of the Bush years, and by raising the profile of Burma in the last months of his administration, Bush has raised the political costs of the ensuing President should he or she fail to follow-up on Burma. Lastly, Bush himself – in his retirement – can keep fighting for democracy and reconciliation in Burma through continuing and building on this agenda through his democracy foundation.

Good things can materialize from this week's Presidential stopover in Thailand. But it remains vital, especially for the Burmese opposition, to assess the words and actions of this brief episode within their proper context.

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