THE PRESIDENT of the United States is a busy man, so when he spends 50 minutes with a 24-year-old activist whom most Americans have never heard of -- from a country that many Americans couldn't find on a map -- there have to be good reasons. President Bush and a few top aides yesterday met in the White House with Charm Tong, who promotes democracy in her native state of Burma from her exile in neighboring Thailand. And he did have good reasons: both to learn more about the terrible straits into which Burma's dictators have plunged their country's 50 million people and to send a message, not long before his trip to Asia, that the United States is committed to supporting democracy there.
It's a message that we hope will resonate among U.S. allies, such as Japan and the Philippines, and percolate through the lower reaches of Mr. Bush's government. Burma, along with North Korea and a couple of other hells on earth, is one of the world's most suffocating dictatorships. Mr. Bush asked during the meeting whether there is any opposition inside the country, Charm Tong told us afterward. "I said the regime has control of the people in every sphere of their life. People are in fear. People don't know who to trust. I said, there is almost no space in Burma."
There is an opposition, of course, and unlike in many dictatorships it has earned full legitimacy. Its leader, another courageous woman, Aung San Suu Kyi, led the National League for Democracy to a landslide parliamentary victory in 1990. But the dictators ignored the results; she remains under house arrest 15 years later, and many of her lieutenants are in fetid prisons.
Charm Tong has helped document how the Burmese military uses rape systematically as a weapon of war, especially among her Shan people and other persecuted nationalities. Mr. Bush asked about that, too. "I said the military wants our communities to feel shamed and demoralized," Charm Tong recounted. "When in fact it is the troops who should be ashamed."
Two global apostles of human rights, South Africa's retired archbishop Desmond Tutu and former Czech president Vaclav Havel, recently proposed that the U.N. Security Council begin seriously considering how to encourage a democratic transition in Burma. Eight countries out of a needed nine support the idea, among them the United States. But not everyone inside the Bush administration has pushed with equal vigor, and the democratic Asian states of Japan and the Philippines inexplicably are holding back. Maybe Mr. Bush can recount to them some of what he heard yesterday.