By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 20, 2007
President Bush yesterday ratcheted up pressure on the military junta in Burma in response to its violent crackdown on democracy protests, imposing a new round of sanctions and calling on China, India and other regional powers to help force the ruling generals to "stop their vicious persecution."
"The people of Burma are showing great courage in the face of immense repression," Bush said in a statement televised live from the White House as first lady Laura Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice looked on. "They are appealing for our help. We must not turn a deaf ear to their cries."
The president directed the government to freeze any U.S.-controlled assets held by 11 senior Burmese officials, and he widened the net with an executive order expanding sanctions to those who assist such officials or the Burmese government, starting with 12 individuals and entities. He also ordered tighter restrictions on the export of goods such as high-performance computers to Burma.
Bush's action followed sanctions he imposed last month amid widespread demonstrations against the military government, which has controlled Burma for decades. Led by barefoot monks in saffron robes, tens of thousands of peaceful protesters took to the streets in Rangoon until government forces moved in with clubs, tear gas and rifles, opening fire. The government said 10 people were killed and 3,000 arrested, with 500 still in custody.
Burma has been a top cause of Laura Bush, who has assumed a high profile rallying world leaders through public statements, interviews and phone calls with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. By announcing a second round of sanctions with the first lady at his side, the president seemed to signal to the Burmese leadership that he does not plan to let up. He threatened to impose more sanctions if Burma does not respond.
Derek Mitchell, a former Clinton administration official now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Bush's move may be intended to exploit fissures within the Burmese leadership. The crackdown killed monks and desecrated monasteries in a country where they are revered, crossing a line the junta had been reluctant to cross before, which could divide the ruling class.
Mitchell said Bush's sanctions will not fundamentally change the situation in Burma but will force the world to stay focused on it. "I give the administration great credit for keeping it in the limelight," he said. "It keeps up the momentum; it keeps the attention." At the same time, he added, Bush should also find ways of offering incentives for the junta to give up power.
Bush's hard line on Burma has produced a rare moment of bipartisan consensus in a Washington polarized over Iraq and other issues. Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said he is "pleased with the president's announcement" and called on Congress to follow suit. "To the people of Burma," he said, "we are with you."
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), a Democratic presidential candidate, likewise offered support for the latest sanctions. "The thugs responsible for suppressing Burma's democracy movement should find no safe haven for the riches they have plundered from the Burmese people," he said.
Last month, Bush imposed sanctions on 14 top Burmese officials, freezing all assets under U.S. jurisdiction, and barred an additional 260 Burmese officials and family members from entering the United States. The president's order yesterday imposed the same financial restrictions on 11 more Burmese leaders, including the mayor of Rangoon and the ministers of commerce, telecommunications, finance and revenue, health, education; and other cabinet officers.
Bush acknowledged that the measures will be less effective without regional powers joining in. "I ask other countries to review their own laws and policies, especially Burma's closest neighbors, China, India and others in the region," Bush said. In the short term, he demanded that Burma provide the Red Cross access to political prisoners, permit opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to communicate with other detained dissidents and allow U.N. envoy Ibrahim Gambari into the country. Ultimately, Bush said, the junta must release all political prisoners and open negotiations for democratic changes.