First Lady Calls for U.N. Resolution Over Ongoing Strife in Burma

By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 6, 2007

During her recent vacation at the family ranch near Crawford, Tex., first lady Laura Bush was reading news articles about the ongoing strife in Burma, where the military government has been arresting dissidents and protesters in large numbers in recent weeks. When she returned to Washington last week, she did something unusual: She called the U.N. secretary-general to register her dismay and urged him to condemn "the brutal crackdown."

Yesterday, the first lady invited a small group of reporters to her office in the East Wing to explain her passion for the cause of Burmese freedom and called for a U.N. resolution expressing the world's concern over the deteriorating situation in one of the world's most isolated and repressive governments.

"So far as we can tell, they thumb their nose at the rest of the world," Bush said in the interview. "But that doesn't mean the rest of the world shouldn't continue to speak out about these issues."

Bush said her long-standing concern about Burma began several years ago when she learned the compelling story of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who has spent much of her time in detention since her party won elections in 1990. The Burmese military rejected the electoral result.

But Bush's engagement has grown more pronounced in the past year or two, as she has consulted with numerous experts and human rights officials, met with the nation's ethnic minorities and hosted a forum about Burma at the United Nations last September.

"I think this is sort of one of those myths that I was baking cookies, and then they fell off the cookie sheet and I called Ban Ki Moon," she joked, referring to the U.N. secretary-general.

Even so, Bush seems to be playing a more confident and expansive role in the past year: Along with her focus on Burma, she has stepped in to help the White House lobby lawmakers on the president's education law and has traveled to Africa to highlight the administration's initiatives on curbing AIDS.

She is careful not to raise too much of a ruckus. Asked yesterday whether her call to Ban was a sign of administration frustration with the United Nations, Bush quickly cut off the question, saying, "No, no, no. I wouldn't say that at all."

But Bush also made clear her willingness to eschew normal diplomatic language, acknowledging that China and Russia stand in the way of the kind of tough resolution that the United States might seek at the Security Council. She said she has a "small amount of optimism that China will work with us on this issue," noting that Beijing helped facilitate a recent meeting between U.S. and Burmese diplomats and has an interest in stability in the country.

"I don't know about Russia," she added. "You know, they seem that whatever we're for, they're against."

Yesterday's interview was part of an accelerating campaign among Western leaders to raise consciousness about the strife in Burma, also known as Myanmar, where dissidents have been arrested amid scattered protests against recent increases in the price of fuel and other consumer goods. Yesterday, there were reports from Rangoon that hundreds of Buddhist monks in the town of Pakokku were met by warning shots from soldiers when they staged an anti-government protest.

President Bush issued his own condemnation of the Burmese government last week, and administration officials said they expect the president to make Burma an issue as he meets with Asian leaders at a Pacific Rim summit this week in Sydney.

The first lady's campaign seems to be having some impact on the U.N. bureaucracy, which has been on the defensive somewhat since Ban issued what was seen inside the U.S. government as a weak statement last month. It called on the Burmese government to exercise "restraint" but also urged "all parties to avoid any provocative action."

In an interview, the top U.N. envoy on Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, said he was caught off guard by what he saw as a critical statement last week from the first lady, whom he said he has briefed three times. "The tone was surprising," he said. "We share the same end result, which is a democratic Myanmar with greater respect for human rights."

Gambari said the United Nations is pursuing a strategy of "patient diplomacy" by painstakingly rallying support for its policies from key regional and international powers -- including the United States, China and Russia. "We don't condone what has happened recently," he added. "We have issued a strong statement that this is unacceptable."

Laura Bush said she was hoping "for as much pressure as we can possibly put" on Burma's ruling generals "to get them to move."

"These are all peaceful protesters," she added. "None of them are calling for a violent overthrow of the government. They're only asking the government to be responsive."

Staff writer Colum Lynch at the United Nations contributed to this report.

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