Saturday, 2 August 2008

Bush and Burma

The Irrawaddy News

US President George W Bush has never been to Burma, and he once called the country’s detained Nobel Peace Prize laureate “Aung Suu San Kyi,” drawing laughter from journalists at an APEC summit in Thailand.

He has since learned how to pronounce the name of Burma’s most famous pro-democracy leader; and thanks in large part to the tutelage of his wife, Laura Bush, who has taken a strong personal interest in Suu Kyi’s struggle on behalf of her people, he now knows a bit more about the problems of a remote country that he still declines to visit.

Next week, the president and first lady will be in Thailand to mark the 175th anniversary of bilateral ties with the Kingdom. While he is here, he will also meet with Burmese activists on the eve of the 20th anniversary of a nationwide pro-democracy uprising that was brutally crushed by the regime that still holds power in Burma.

The United States has always strongly supported the efforts of Burma’s people achieve freedom from military rule. The current administration has been no exception. Though often criticized at home and abroad for his foreign policy, Bush has won the respect of most Burmese for his firm stance on the repressive regime in Naypyidaw.

In 2003, the US introduced the Freedom and Democracy Act in response to a ruthless attack on Suu Kyi and her supporters in the central Burmese town of Depayin. In 2005, Bush identified Burma as one of the world’s “outposts of tyranny,” together with Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Zimbabwe and Belarus.

Last year, following the crackdown on the September uprising, he blasted the regime and tightened sanctions against the generals and their cronies. As a further sign of support, the US Congress awarded its highest civilian honor, the Congressional Gold Medal, to Suu Kyi last December. And just this week, Bush signed into law the Burma Jade Act, which restricts the import of precious stones from Burma and extends existing import sanctions.

Bush has often been faulted for his tendency to see complex issues in black and white. But while many condemn him for trying to impose his political vision on Iraq, few can argue that in the case of Burma, he has taken a genuinely principled stand that is perfectly consistent with reality.

The Burmese people are indeed fortunate to have the support of both Bush and his wife, Laura, who has been a real driving force in keeping Burma at the top of the world’s political agenda.

She has met with Burmese activists in Washington and New York on a number of occasions and held video teleconferences with prominent exiles. She has also participated in several roundtable discussions on Burma with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and his special envoy to Burma, Ibrahim Gambari.

When the Burmese regime crushed protests last year, she called Ban to discuss the situation—a rare move by an American first lady, and one that shows the depth of her concern for the fate of Burma’s people.

At the height of the crisis, she even called on Snr-Gen Than Shwe, the junta’s supreme leader, to step down. Instead, he moved to consolidate his position, more determined than ever to move forward with his road map to “disciplined democracy.”

In May of this year, it became evident just how much Than Shwe has staked on the ultimate success of this deeply flawed political process, which promises only a continuation of military rule under another guise.

On May 3, one week before a planned referendum on a military-drafted constitution, Burma was hit by its worst natural disaster in living memory. But Cyclone Nargis did not stop the junta going ahead with its rigged referendum, putting politics ahead of the lives of millions of people.

The American response to this disaster was markedly different from that of the rulers in Naypyidaw. The US moved quickly to temporarily suspend its sanctions against Burma so that it could assist in the relief effort, offering aid and the use of military aircraft to transport international emergency relief supplies into the country.

Humanitarian workers in Burma praised the Bush administration for its bold decision to send C-130 flights into Rangoon with relief items, setting aside politics for the sake of saving lives.

But when the USS Essex and other US naval ships withdrew from their positions near Burmese waters, after weeks of hopes that Bush would invoke the UN’s Responsibility to Protect and order them into the delta, many Burmese were more than a little disappointed.

This raises the most serious question about US support for Burma’s pro-democracy movement: Is there any real political will in the US to effect substantive change in Burma, or is Washington simply offering moral support to the victims of a heinous regime to burnish its image as a defender of freedom?

While some cynics say that Bush’s stance on Burma is merely a distraction from the troubling consequences of other facets of his foreign policy, others suggest that ultimately, the US is seeking to use Burma to “contain” China, which has become the Burmese regime’s most important ally.

These critics of US policy point to Washington’s overtures to Gen Ne Win soon after he seized power in 1962 as evidence that the US has never been particularly troubled by military rule in Burma or anywhere else when broader geopolitical interests were at stake.

Although Ne Win accepted an invitation to the White House, he never became close to Washington. Even substantial development aid and other support in the form of weapons and helicopters for Burma’s anti-narcotics efforts failed to bring Burma within America’s sphere of influence—something US leaders were desperate to achieve in a bid to counter Communist China’s regional ambitions.

But a great deal has changed since the days of the Cold War. China is no longer the “red threat” that it once was, but a country that has opened up to the world in ways that were almost unimaginable even two decades ago. The US has no interest in reversing this process, any more than it has a desire to see Burma sealed off and stagnating under the same regressive regime that has ruled since 1988.

As part of his visit to Asia next week, Bush will be in Beijing to attend the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympic Games on August 8. This will give him an opportunity to both celebrate China’s progress and to highlight the need for deeper changes, particularly regarding its attitude towards fundamental human rights.

By meeting with Burmese exiles the day before attending Beijing’s grand coming-out party, Bush is sending a reminder that August 8 is not only a day to recognize China’s achievements, but also an occasion to recall the unfulfilled aspirations of the Burmese people.

There is little more that the Burmese people can ask of Bush in the remaining months of his administration. And after eight years of unstinting support, which even the most skeptical Burmese activists have had to acknowledge as a major contribution to their cause, they can even learn to live with his occasional mangling of Burmese names.