Bush to criticize Myanmar during Asia trip

Aug. 06, 2008, 6:31 a.m. (ET)

BANGKOK, Thailand(AP) U.S. President George W. Bush is set to deliver a thumping broadside against Myanmar and meet with Burmese dissidents who have heaped praise on his tough policy toward its military rulers. First lady Laura Bush will add ammunition with a trip to see Myanmar refugees at the Thai border.

But these salvos during the U.S. president's 24-hour visit to Thailand on Thursday are unlikely to alter the hard-line course charted by Myanmar's generals who have time and again failed to respond to international pressure for democratic change.

Analysts suggest Bush might do better by taking up the issue with leaders in China, Myanmar's closest ally with at least some leverage over its leadership. From Thailand, Bush travels on to Beijing where he will attend the Olympic Games.

``If there is going to be any real change in Burma, China has to be on board,'' said Larry Jagan, a Bangkok-based newspaper columnist and Myanmar analyst. ``If Bush is able - and I believe that he will have the opportunity to discuss this with very senior leadership in China and get them on board - then we may see things significantly change after the Olympics.''

Most analysts, however, see little prospect for change, at least in the near-term.

In interviews with Asian media last week, Bush telegraphed that he and his wife - who has emerged as one of the world's toughest critics of Myanmar's government - would renew their criticism of the military dictatorship and call for the release of the country's democracy icon, Aung San Suu Kyi.

``Here is a very heroic woman that was elected overwhelmingly by her people and has now been under house arrest by a group of military guys that just simply won't allow the will of the people to flourish,'' the president said in a White House interview with The Nation, an English-language daily in Thailand.

Bush, making what is expected to be his last trip to Asia as president, is also to deliver a sweeping address on Asia policy. The White House released the text of the speech nearly 18 hours in advance, as Bush flew to Thailand from South Korea.

Standing out were comments on China's human rights record.

``America stands in firm opposition to China's detention of political dissidents, human rights advocates and religious activists,'' Bush is to say in the marquee speech of his Asia trip. ``We speak out for a free press, freedom of assembly and labor rights - not to antagonize China's leaders, but because trusting its people with greater freedom is the only way for China to develop its full potential.''

The president will be in Bangkok on the eve of an event much heralded by Myanmar's anti-government forces: the 20th anniversary of an Aug. 8, 1988, pro-democracy uprising, which was brutally crushed by the military.

Reports from Myanmar, also known as Burma, indicate that stifling security is likely to quash any protests to mark the anniversary.

In Thailand, most dissidents praise the Bush administration for stepping up sanctions against Myanmar, including a ban last month on the import of rubies and jade from the country - major earners for the dictatorship.

``Bush's genuinely principled stand,'' read the headline of an article Wednesday in the Bangkok Post by Aung Zaw, one of more than half a dozen exiles who are to have lunch with Bush during his stop in Southeast Asia.

``We are very pleased with his very active policy on Burma. I think he does his best regarding his foreign policy (toward the regime) and will as well in his speech,'' said Zin Linn, a former political prisoner and exile.

The dissidents say tougher sanctions by more countries are needed.

Bush agreed in his interview with The Nation.

``The idea of unilateral sanctions, they're effective only to a certain extent. And therefore, other countries must also join and frankly there's some countries in the neighborhood that aren't interested in joining,'' he told the newspaper.

His remarks were clearly aimed at China.

Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej regards himself as a friend of Myanmar's generals. After a visit earlier this year, he said he had newfound respect for them after learning that they meditate like good Buddhists.

Still, the Thai government has not balked at prospect of the Bushes using the country as a platform to attack Myanmar's junta.

Laura Bush is to visit a refugee camp in Mae La, just over the border from Myanmar in Thailand. The camp is home to 38,000 refugees from the Karen community, an ethnic minority that human rights organizations say is the target of an ongoing Myanmar military campaign marked by murders of civilians, rapes and razing of villages. Myanmar denies the charges and says it is battling Karen insurgents.

Mrs. Bush also plans to spend time at the Mae Tao Clinic, run by Dr. Cynthia Maung, a Karen Christian refugee who provides medical care on the Thai side of the border for more than 50,000 people from Myanmar every year. Medical care is lacking in Myanmar, and many of her patients trek to her health center from deep within Myanmar. Known as the ``Mother Teresa of Burma,'' the doctor has received the Ramon Magsaysay Award, Asia's equivalent of the Nobel Prize, for her humanitarian work.

Bush and his Thai hosts will also mark 175 years of relations, which began with an 1833 treaty and gifts of a ceremonial sword, gold watch and silver basket from President Andrew Jackson to King Rama III.

The visit is not expected to have much impact on bilateral relations, said Surachart Bamrungsuk, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.

``Thailand, like other Southeast Asian countries, have not been the main agenda since the Cold War ended,'' he said. ``His term is also coming to an end. (The visit) is unlikely to define future Thai-U.S. relations.''


Associated Press reporters Eliza Bates, Ambika Ahuja and Sutin Wannabovorn contributed to this report.