Friday, 8 August 2008

US First Lady visits Myanmar refugees

MAE LA REFUGEE CAMP, Thailand (AFP) — US First Lady Laura Bush, a vocal critic of Myanmar's junta, toured a refugee camp on Thursday and called on the military regime to open dialogue with the pro-democracy opposition.

Highlighting abuses in military-run Myanmar has been the chief cause of the first lady, and with her daughter Barbara she made her way through a muddy settlement which is home to tens of thousands who fled the junta's repression.

She thanked the Thai government for allowing the nine camps housing more than 120,000 refugees that string the border with Myanmar.

"If we could see a change in the Burmese government... people could move home in safety, that would be the best result," the first lady told camp leaders, referring to Myanmar by its previous name.

"The best solution would be if General Than Shwe's regime would start real dialogue," she said after being greeted by refugees performing song and dance in traditional dress.

About 35,000 refugees huddle in Mae La camp at the foot of forested mountains, which many risked their lives to cross in their desperation to flee military crackdowns on ethnic rebel armies in their homeland.

Mae La is on the site of the first refugee camp, which was set up in 1984 as Myanmar's army advanced into Karen state and forced thousands over the border.

Most refugees are from Myanmar's ethnic groups, including many Christians from the Karen minority, and the United States has pledged to resettle 26,811 of the refugees.

But Laura Bush said: "Most people do not want to have to move to third countries. They would rather move to their home villages in safety and security."

The first lady also visited Mae Tao Clinic, one of the few medical centres in Thailand where migrant workers from Myanmar can get free health care.

President George W. Bush, who arrived in Thailand on Wednesday, hailed his wife's efforts to highlight abuses in Myanmar, which has been ruled by the military since 1962 and keeps democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi locked up.

"We seek an end to tyranny in Burma," he said in a speech in Bangkok.

"This noble cause has many devoted champions, and I happen to be married to one of them... America reiterates our call on Burma's military junta to release Aung San Suu Kyi and all other political prisoners."

The president also met with exiled Myanmar dissidents and politicians, a day before the 20-year anniversary of a pro-democracy uprising there which was crushed by the army, leaving 3,000 dead.

He told the exiles that American people "pray for the day in which the people (of Myanmar) will be free."

Aung San Suu Kyi led her National League for Democracy (NLD) party to election victory in 1990, but instead of recognising the result the junta kept her under house arrest, where she has now spent most of the last 19 years.

On Friday, activists in Myanmar will silently mark two decades since the August 8, 1988 uprising, when students led activists, Buddhist monks and even young military cadets onto the streets, only to face a massacre by the army.

Last year, protesters again poured onto the streets to rally against economic hardship and junta rule. This time, 31 people were killed in the resulting crackdown, the United Nations has said.

The United States has been the most vocal critic of the junta, and has a patchwork of economic sanctions against the regime. These sanctions were strengthened after the crackdown last September.

"We urge the Chinese to do what other countries have done to put financial sanctions on the junta," Laura Bush said, hours ahead of rejoining her husband in Bangkok and flying to Beijing for the opening of the Olympic Games.

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