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Bush visit to Thailand: Burmese Human Rights on the table
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    Bush visit to Thailand: Burmese Human Rights on the table

    US PRESIDENT BUSH'S VISIT
    Human Rights on the table
    By Supalak Ganjanakhundee
    The Nation

    Visiting US President George W Bush will talk with Burmese dissidents over lunch Thursday to indicate his concerns on human rights and political development in the military-ruled country.

    Bush will arrive in Bangkok on Wedensday as part of his Asian tour which also takes him to the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Beijing on Friday.

    Some 10 Burmese people including Irrawaddy magazine's editor Aung Zaw and other Bangkok-based political activists will lunch with Bush and discuss a wide range of issues about the situation in Burma.

    First Lady Laura Bush, who has campaigned for human rights in Burma for years, will meet separately with Dr Cynthia Maung at her border clinic in Mae Sot.

    Observers said the highprofile meeting might merely be symbolic without any real impact on the situation in the neighbouring country.

    Yawd Serk, chairman of the Restoration Council of Shan State and commander of the armed dissident Shan State Army, will not join the lunch with Bush and has sent an open letter asking the US to put more pressure on the junta to hand over its power to the Burmese people.

    Like North Korea, Yawd Serk said in his letter, the junta has never cared about people's well being but concentrated only on the development of military power.

    The junta had tried to possess nuclear facilities for military purposes. It sent officers to Russia to study nuclear technology. With 30 Russian scientists, the regime has been building three underground nuclear factories in Ho Pone township, Taunggyi, Shan State, as well as in May Myo and Thapeik Kyin in Mandalay division, Yawd Serk said.

    The current military junta, also known as the State Peace and Development Council, has ruled Burma since an uprising in August 1988. It refused to transfer political power to the National League for Democracy which won a landslide victory in a general election in 1990.

    The regime, which has launched crackdowns on the popular uprisings many times over the past two decades, planned to hold another election in 2010 but the international community doubts its sincerity in being prepared to hand over administrative power to any civilians who might win the election.

    The US and the European Union have put pressure and sanctions on the military regime for years but these efforts have yielded no positive results in Burma's political development.

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    Re: Bush visit to Thailand: Burmese Human Rights on the table

    BURMA

    Bush's genuinely principled stand

    AUNG ZAW

    US President George Walker 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 Daw 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.

    This week, the US 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 to achieve freedom from military rule. The current administration has been no exception. Though often criticised at home and abroad for his foreign policy, President 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 Daw Suu Kyi and her supporters in the central Burmese town of Depayin.

    In 2005, President 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 honour, the Congressional Gold Medal, to Daw Suu Kyi last December. And just this week, President Bush signed into law the Burma Jade Act, which restricts the import of precious stones from Burma and extends existing import sanctions.

    President 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 President 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 tele-conferences 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 Mr 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 Senior General 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 this year it became evident just how much Gen 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 from 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 President Bush would invoke the UN's "Responsibility to Protect" and order them into the Irrawaddy 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 President 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 this week, President Bush will be in Beijing to attend the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympic Games on Aug 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, President Bush is sending a reminder that Aug 8 is not only a day to recognise 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 President Bush in the remaining months of his administration. And after eight years of unstinting support, which even the most sceptical 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.

    Aung Zaw is the editor of the Irrawaddy magazine.

    Bangkok Post

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    Re: Bush visit to Thailand: Burmese Human Rights on the table

    'Make Burma free'

    "We seek an end to tyranny in Burma," the US president will say.

    An advance copy of the speech on US policy towards Asia was released as Mr Bush headed to Bangkok from Seoul, on a regional tour ahead of his visit to Beijing for the opening of the Olympic Games tomorrow.

    "America reiterates our call on Burma's military junta to release Aung San Suu Kyi and all other political prisoners.

    "And we will continue working until the people of Burma have the freedom they deserve."

    His visit is to celebrate the 175th year of bilateral relations between Thailand and the US.

    Mr Bush held talks over dinner with Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej soon after arriving in Bangkok.

    Mr Samak used the occasion to thank the visiting president for Washington's understanding on the Preah Vihear issue.

    As a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, the US supported Thailand's attempts to end the border row with Cambodia without interference from other countries.

    Last month, Phnom Penh tried to get the spat over the disputed area near the temple tabled before the council, but Bangkok opposed the move.

    The Cambodian government later withdrew the issue from the UN.

    "We agreed that our alliance and friendship will remain as strong and close as it has been in the past 174 years," the prime minister said before the dinner.

    "We are determined to continue working closely together to further strengthen our relationships and goodwill for the benefit of our two countries and the region."

    Mr Bush thanked Thailand for its cooperation with the US on the Cobra Gold joint military exercise and praised the kingdom for restoring democracy and its quick humanitarian response for victims of Cyclone Nargis in Burma.

    Yesterday, security was strengthened at Government House in preparation for the official visit, with hundreds of police deployed around the compound.

    A helicopter flew above Government House and police dogs checked for any illicit substances and explosives.

    Private vehicles were forbidden from entering Government House after 4pm, while staff who were not responsible for the reception were told to leave their offices and take their vehicles out of Government House immediately after they finished work.

    After giving his speech on his Asian policy, the US president will today visit the Mercy Centre in Klong Toey, set up by American Father Joseph Maier in 1974 to help children in the slums.

    He will meet exiled political dissidents from Burma, on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the 8/8/88 prodemocracy uprising there which was crushed by the army, leaving 3,000 dead.

    Today, Mr Bush's wife Laura plans to visit the Mae Tao clinic in Mae Sot district in Tak province and the Mae La Karen refugee camp near the ThaiBurmese border in Tha Song Yang district in the same province, which houses 60,000 refugees, most of them Karen.

    The clinic is run by Cynthia Maung, who received the Magsaysay Award for community leadership last year and was named one of Time magazine's Asian heroes in 2003.

    Mrs Bush has been an outspoken critic of the Burmese junta, and the president's speech hailed efforts by Mrs Suu Kyi in trying to bring democracy to a country which has been ruled by the military since 1962.

    Mrs Suu Kyi led her National League for Democracy party to election victory in 1990, but instead of recognising the result the junta placed her under house arrest, where she has now been detained for most of the subsequent 19 years.

    Bangkok Post

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