Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Behind the Scenes at the Bush Meeting

The Irrawaddy News
Intelligence Sep'08

US President George W Bush met with Thailand-based Burmese exiles in August, in a strong show of American support for Burma’s beleaguered pro-democracy movement.

The meeting was the first of its kind between a US head of state and members of the Burmese diaspora in Thailand. Earlier suggestions that it might take place in Chiang Mai, home to many Burmese exiles, were soon dropped in favor of an informal lunch gathering at the US ambassador’s residence in Bangkok, to allay Thai concerns about roiling relations with its neighbor.

Although Bush did not signal any change in the US policy of isolating Burma’s military rulers, those who attended the gathering noted the presence of a Burmese aid worker involved in Cyclone Nargis relief efforts in the Irrawaddy delta. Some members of the exiled dissident community suggested that the last-minute invitation to this individual was intended to represent the pro-engagement camp. However, inside sources said that the aid worker was a professional who maintained her distance from the regime.

While Bush played host to his Burmese guests, his wife, Laura, visited the Mae Tao clinic in the Thai-Burmese border town of Mae Sot and the Mae La refugee camp, home to some 45,000 refugees. Despite Thai concerns about the safety of the US delegation in an area notorious for cross-border raids by groups allied to the Burmese army, the visit was completed without a hitch.

The exiles who met the Bushes were pleasantly surprised by their level of interest in Burmese issues. US officials later said that both had learned a great deal from their encounters with the Thai-based exiles. The president came away from his meeting with a sense that the problems facing Burma were “complex,” said a Washington-based official.

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