By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 8, 2008
MAE SOT, Thailand, Aug 7 -- With rain falling steadily outside, first lady Laura Bush sat down inside a small hut near the Thai border with Burma on Thursday and invited a group of refugees who fled one of the world's most repressive governments to tell her what they "would like the people of the world to know" about their situation.
"Our dream is to go home," said one refugee, Mahn Htun Htun. "But there is no peace and democracy in Burma -- and it's impossible to go home."
For the past two years, Bush has made freedom in Burma a focus of her official duties as first lady. On Thursday, she ventured as close to the closed country as she has ever been, visiting a muddy, rain-soaked refugee camp and medical clinic a few miles from the border -- part of a White House campaign to raise public pressure on the military junta.
President Bush played a supporting role. He had lunch at the U.S. ambassador's residence in Bangkok with some Burmese dissidents and told them that the "American people care deeply about the people of Burma, and we pray for the day in which the people will be free." He also spoke about Burma in a radio interview heard inside that country.
"Together, we seek an end to tyranny in Burma," the president said in a policy address in Bangkok. "The noble cause has many devoted champions, and I happen to be married to one of them." Laura Bush and daughter Barbara made a seven-hour swing to the rugged border region, to which about 140,000 Burmese refugees, many of them members of persecuted ethnic minorities, have fled.
There Laura Bush carried out some first-lady-like activities, sitting in on English and math lessons for students in the Mae La refugee camp. It's a virtual city of about 35,000 Burmese, most of them members of the Karen minority, living in ramshackle wood huts.
She visited a clinic run by Cynthia Maung, described by many as the Mother Teresa of Burma, and learned how doctors there treat thousands of poor Burmese for cataracts, missing legs and other problems.
But the first lady also had strong words for Burmese strongman Than Shwe, who remains in power despite tightened U.S. sanctions, a street uprising last year and a cyclone this year that U.S. officials say killed as many as 300,000 people.
Meeting the press briefly at the Mae La camp, she noted that Friday is the 20th anniversary of the military crackdown that crushed Burma's democracy and left the leader of the democratic forces, Aung San Suu Kyi, under house arrest.
"Twenty years have gone by -- everything is still the same or maybe worse in Burma," she said. "We know that Burma is a very rich country, rich in natural resources. And the junta uses those resources to prop themselves up for their own benefit, not for the benefit of the people of Burma."
A reporter reminded the first lady that China is perhaps Burma's biggest international patron, and asked why she and the president are going to the Olympics.
"That's a really good question, and we have talked to the Chinese quite often about this," she replied. "As you know, the Chinese depend on a lot of energy imports into China. . . . We urge the Chinese to do what other countries have done -- to sanction, to put a financial squeeze on the Burmese generals."
U.S. efforts to isolate Burma through sanctions have had limited impact, with countries such as India and China resistant to steps that might threaten their financial interests there. The U.S. Congress recently imposed a new ban on the import of jade and other precious stones from Burma.
Despite such moves, the Burmese government has proved highly resilient, as well as suspicious, resisting many international offers of assistance after Cyclone Nargis partly out of fear that outsiders would try to undermine its rule.
If the Bushes' rhetoric has not moved the hearts of Burma's military rulers, it seemed to be popular among refugees the first lady met here, some of whom conveyed fresh complaints about the authorities.
Hay Lary, an ethnic Karen who has taught in the camp, said she was pleased by Bush's presence because she might bring new resources for refugees. "We need more education for this camp and especially for the people here," Lary, 39, said.
Lary, who has been living along the border for nearly 20 years, is leaving the camp shortly, bound for South Carolina along with her husband and five children, ages 7 through 13. Her family is part of an increasing flow of Burmese refugees to the United States, especially members of the Karen minority. According to Bush and her aides, roughly 30,000 Burmese have emigrated to the United States since 2005. The number has surged, officials said, since Congress undid what the officials termed a technicality in the law that penalized many prospective refugees because of an insurgency being mounted by some of the Karen inside Burma.
Bush made clear that while her preference was for refugees to return home, that is not possible under current conditions.
She also suggested that her advocacy goes only so far. When a radio reporter suggested that than many Burmese would support an "invasion" to replace the current government, Bush chuckled and replied, "They need to talk to somebody else -- not the first lady."
Staff researcher Madonna Lebling in Washington contributed to this report.