An Unelected Laura Bush Holds America’s Burma Policy Hostage

Missionary Diplomacy


Laura Bush’s Burma crusade, driven by a moral and religious calling, has increasingly pushed that strategically located country into China’s strategic lap while undercutting Indian interests.


Brahma Chellaney

Asian Age, May 24, 2008


A natural calamity is usually an occasion to set aside political differences and show compassion. But after a powerful cyclone tore into Burma’s Irrawaddy Delta on the night of May 2-3, that isolated country — ruled by ultra-nationalistic but rapacious military elites deeply distrustful of the sanctions-enforcing West — came under mounting international pressure to open up its devastated areas to foreign aid workers and supplies or face an armed humanitarian intervention.


            Such threats have helped lay a tentative framework for an ASEAN-led aid operation, a middle option that is supposed to end an impasse over the Burmese regime’s refusal to allow the entry of foreign relief teams other than from the Asian states it considers friendly, including India, China, ASEAN members and Japan. But even as the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has toured the cyclone-wracked areas, the World Food Programme has brought in helicopters, and aid teams from India and other neighbouring nations continue their work, the junta still faces intense pressure from the sanctions-applying states to throw open Burma’s borders to Western relief workers.


The murky politics of international assistance has helped obscure the role of a key actor whose growing activism in recent years has helped turn up the heat on the Burmese generals. The increasingly outspoken Laura Bush, the first lady of the US, has emerged as the main driver of America’s Burma policy.


No sooner had Cyclone Nargis, packing winds up to 190 kilometres per hour, battered the Irrawaddy Delta than President George W. Bush’s wife stepped out in public to toss insults at Burma’s military rulers. In an unprecedented spectacle, the first lady showed up at the White House briefing room — normally the preserve of the president and secretary of state — and held forth on foreign policy, blaming the junta for the high death toll. The next day, as announced by Laura Bush, President Bush presided at a ceremony awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to the detained leader of Burma’s democracy movement, Aung San Suu Kyi.


In the twilight of her husband’s presidency, the 61-year-old Laura Bush — a former librarian — has left no one in doubt on who directs Burma policy in Washington. In a prepared statement that she read out at the White House briefing room on May 5 before taking questions from reporters, she thanked “the European Union, Canada and Australia for joining the United States in imposing” sanctions, and went on to “appeal to China, India and Burma’s fellow ASEAN members to use their influence to encourage a democratic transition.”


Last December, Laura Bush caught New Delhi by surprise by announcing that, “India, one of Burma’s closest trading partners, has stopped selling arms to the junta.” To date, New Delhi has made no such announcement.


With China serving as a reliable weapon supplier for the past two decades and access to arms also available via Singapore and Russia, the junta has little need for India’s low-grade, mostly second-hand, arms. But New Delhi has dared not say a word in contradiction to Mrs. Bush’s statement during a December 10, 2007, video teleconference on International Human Rights Day. Who can refute a first lady whose fury on Burma flows from a moral and religious calling?


It is easy to play the morality game against Burma, ranked as one of the world’s critically weak states.


Slapping Burma with new sanctions every so often has become such a favourite Bush pastime that just one day before the cyclone struck, the president announced yet another round of punitive actions. But no one in the world has suggested any penal measure, however mild, against China for its continuing brutal repression in Tibet because sanctions would bring job losses and other economic pain to the West.


In fact, egged on by his wife, Bush has signed more executive orders in the past five years to penalize Burma than any other country.


Mrs. Bush’s crusade against the Burmese military, which sees itself as the upholder of a predominantly Buddhist Burma’s unity and cultural identity, has been inspired by three separate elements: (i) information from some of the Christian churches that have sizable ethnic-minority adherents in that country; (ii) a meeting she reputedly had with a Christian Karen rape victim; and (iii) the briefings she received from Elsie Walker Kilborne, a cousin of President Bush. By contrast, she and her husband have had little problem with the military’s intervention in politics in Burma-neighbouring Bangladesh and Thailand.


Such is Laura Bush’s activism that last September it was she, not the president, who telephoned Ban ki-moon and called for the UN to be more active on Burma. Earlier, in 2006, she moderated a roundtable discussion at the UN that sought to draw attention to the junta’s political repression. She has condemned the regime not just in official statements and congressional testimony, but also in two opinion articles published last year in the Wall Street Journal.


In an October 2007 article, titled “Stop the Terror in Burma,” she put forth her demand clearly: “Gen. Than Shwe and his deputies are a friendless regime. They should step aside to make way for a unified Burma governed by legitimate leaders. The rest of the armed forces should not fear this transition — there is room for a professional military in a democratic Burma. In fact, one of Burma’s military heroes was also a beloved champion of Burmese freedom: General Aung San, the late father of Aung San Suu Kyi.” She added: “The regime’s position grows weaker by the day. The generals’ choice is clear: The time for a free Burma is now.” In an earlier June 19, 2007, op-ed, she said: “The Burmese regime poses an increasing threat to the security of all nations.”


In May 2007, Mrs. Bush enlisted 16 women Senators to join her in sending a signed letter to Ban Ki-Moon calling for the U.N. to pressure the Burmese regime to release Suu Kyi. And since last year, she has repeatedly met with the UN’s special envoy for Burma, Ibrahim Gambari.


After her phone call to the UN secretary-general created a public stir, she said: “I think that 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.” That comment harked back to Hillary Clinton’s famous remark during her husband’s presidency that she was not one to stay home and bake cookies.


This week, as the junta still refuses to accept aid from four US naval ships that have been waiting in the Bay of Bengal with 1,000 Marines, 14 helicopters, and 15,000 water containers and purifying kits on board, Laura Bush went on the Voice of America — a US Congress-funded broadcaster with a Burmese language service — to tell the regime that it has nothing to fear and that “there would be absolutely no strings attached with this aid.”


The unpalatable fact is that her angry denunciations right after Cyclone Nargis had struck only contributed to the junta’s resistance to allowing Western relief workers to enter, deepening the aid crisis. As the Los Angeles Times reported on May 10, 2008, quoting several critics, “the administration’s harsh comments were poorly timed and risked reinforcing the government’s suspicions of the outside world and undermining the humanitarian effort.”


Although the Burmese military seized power in 1962, the first substantive U.S. sanctions, tellingly, did not come until 1997, when a ban on further American investments to “develop Burma’s resources” was reluctantly clamped by President Bill Clinton. But it was only under Bush that Burma emerged as a major target of U.S. sanctions.


Escalating sanctions have compelled a country whose nationalism has traditionally bordered on xenophobia to increasingly rely on China, even as its rulers still suspect Chinese intentions. Today, Burma finds itself trapped between U.S.-led sanctions and growing Chinese leverage over its affairs.


But with the devil close on its heels, Burma — which Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has labelled an “outpost of tyranny” — has moved toward the deep blue sea of Chinese “benevolence.”


For a resource-hungry China, Burma has proven such a treasure trove that some northern Burmese provinces today stand stripped of their high-quality tropical hardwoods and precious gemstones. Beijing also has used Burma as a dumping ground for cheap Chinese products, besides running large trade surpluses with that impoverished country.


Aided by Western disengagement from Burma, Chinese entrepreneurs, traders, money lenders, craftsmen and others have flocked to that country, now home to between one to two million Chinese economic migrants. With their higher living standards setting them apart from the natives, these migrants constitute Burma’s new economic class.


While unintentionally aiding Chinese interests, the US-led penal campaign has cost New Delhi dear, reflected in China’s setting up of listening posts and other moves in Burma that open a security flank against India. In the Bush years, India has been losing out even on commercial contracts.


By treating Burma as a pawn in a larger geopolitical game and seeking to drag it before the United Nations Security Council, the White House only increases the junta’s need for political protection from a veto-armed China, with the consequent Burmese imperative to reward Beijing for such defence.


One reward to China for stepping in twice last year to shield Burma in the Security Council has been a 30-year contract to take gas by pipeline from two offshore fields owned by an Indo-Korean consortium. The junta first withdrew the status of India’s GAIL company as the “preferential buyer” of gas from the A-1 and A-3 blocks in the Bay of Bengal and then signed a production-sharing contract with China’s state-run CNPC firm.


The U.S. penal measures and moves have not only forced Burma to shift from its traditional policy of nonalignment to alignment, but also driven U.S. policy to become dependent on Beijing for any movement on Burma.


This is apparent both from the way the US has pleaded with China this month to use all its influence to press the junta to open up the cyclone-battered areas to outside relief efforts, and from the secret mid-2007 US meeting with Burmese ministers that was held at America’s initiative in Beijing.


The Beijing meeting, held without prior US consultations with India, Japan and ASEAN states, came six months after China had torpedoed a Security Council draft resolution tabled by the US and Britain that called on the Burmese regime to halt military attacks on ethnic minorities, release iconic opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners, and begin a democratic transition. By taking China’s help to set up a meeting between its deputy assistant secretary of state and senior Burmese government representatives, the US only helped validate Beijing’s rationale for maintaining close contact with the junta.


Like on North Korea, Bush is blithely outsourcing to China parts of the US policy on Burma. But on Burma, US policy is also weighed down by Laura Bush’s missionary zeal.


Far from improving human rights in Burma, the blinkered activism has helped strengthen the military’s political grip. Recent threats of a humanitarian invasion of Burma indeed reeked of desperation, suggesting a callous willingness to employ food aid in a disaster situation to try and effect political change.


Today, an unelected, unaccountable woman holds US policy hostage to paradoxically promote free elections and public accountability in Burma. And her twice-elected, twice-born Christian husband — whom she persuaded to quit drinking at age 40 — attests to being under his wife’s sway through the “Laura and I” reference in his latest Burma-sanctions announcement. But as the Bible says, “There is none so blind as he who will not see.”


© Asian Age, 2008.


(Photograph at top shows Laura Bush meeting Karen and other minority-ethnic representatives from Burma at the White House, along with a U.S. congressman and an American adviser to the Karen National Union. Photograph released by the White House.)

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