For Immediate Release
Office of the First Lady
June 21, 2007
Wall Street Journal: A Burmese Birthday
Wall Street Journal
June 19, 2007
HEADLINE: A Burmese Birthday
BYLINE: Laura Bush
Today in Rangoon, Burma, a national hero celebrates her 62nd birthday -- alone. She is separated from her children abroad; when her husband was dying from cancer, he was forbidden to be near her. Her only well-wishers today are armed guards, who hide her from the rest of the world.
Thus have many of the last 17 birthdays passed for Aung San Suu Kyi. Since 1990, Burma's military junta has held the nation's democratically elected leader as a captive in her own home -- and in May, Gen. Than Shwe extended the house arrest by another year. For Burmese who are less well-known, the treatment can be even worse: The regime's abuses have spawned more than 500,000 internally displaced persons and sent hundreds of thousands fleeing the country. Children are pressed into service as laborers, and reports indicate that the rape of girls is commonplace.
The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners reports that detainees are subject to unspeakable torture: vicious beatings and rapes, confinement for months with rope and shackles, forced crawls across sharp metal and glass. Three university students were arrested for possessing educational CDs on human rights distributed by Amnesty International. A National League for Democracy member was sentenced to 14 years just for giving a fellow university student a list of Ms. Suu Kyi's awards.
Yet despite the ongoing horrors, supporters of a free Burma have new reasons for hope. A new generation of dissidents is advancing the twin causes of Ms. Suu Kyi's release and Burma's peaceful transition to democracy. They are led by members of Ms. Suu Kyi's NLD party, and the 88 Generation Students, who first won respect when they challenged military rule as university students 19 years ago.
Over the last year, dissidents like Su Su Nwe and Phyu Phyu Thinn have helped bring unprecedented vigor and coordination to the pro-democracy movement. In 2004 and 2005, the regime released key 88 Generation leaders it had detained as political prisoners, including Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi and Htay Kywe. Recently, the 88 Generation launched a month-long letter-writing drive, in which tens of thousands of people sent complaints about their daily hardships to Gen. Than Shwe. Last October, 500,000 people signed a petition pleading for the release of Burma's 1,100 political prisoners -- including Ms. Suu Kyi. And on May 27, the anniversary of Ms. Suu Kyi's electoral victory, more than 1,000 people assembled for a prayer procession to Rangoon's Shwedagon Pagoda. When the regime's mob blocked their way and assaulted the demonstrators, the activists turned the peaceful march into a massive political rally. It was the largest pro-democracy gathering in Burma since 1996.
The young opposition's new sense of urgency is well-timed: Gen. Than Shwe and his aging deputies are becoming obsolete. In their late 70s, they suffer from ill health -- for which they seek state-of-the-art treatment in Singapore, even as they deny their own citizens basic health services. Recently, the junta relocated its capital from Rangoon to the remote jungle town of Nay Pyi Taw.
President Bush has called for the "immediate and unconditional release" of Ms. Suu Kyi, most recently at a dissidents' conference in Prague. When I met last month with the Charg d'Affaires of our Embassy in Burma, Shari Villarosa, she told me that she keeps an open door to Burmese dissidents and activists. And just last week, Sens. Mitch McConnell and Dianne Feinstein introduced the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act, which reauthorizes U.S. sanctions on the junta. President Bush looks forward to signing this bill into law.
The international community also keeps vigil. The Burmese regime poses an increasing threat to the security of all nations. Within a few weeks in April, the generals restored diplomatic relations with North Korea and signed a compact with Russia to build a nuclear reactor. Members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have become active critics of the regime. And today, I'll meet with the U.N. Special Envoy for Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, to discuss how the international community can hold the generals to account.
In Burma, as in all unfree nations, voices of support from the outside eventually make their way to the voiceless. Last week, I met at the White House with traveling representatives of Burma's Ethnic Nationalities Council Delegation who told me: "When America speaks, it gives us hope." Today is a chance to speak the names of those who labor for Burma's freedom -- courageous democrats like Su Su Nwe, Phyu Phyu Thinn, Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi, and Htay Kywe. By supporting them, we can help ensure that a name synonymous with courage the world over, Aung San Suu Kyi, belongs to a woman who can celebrate her next birthday in freedom.
Mrs. Bush is first lady of the United States.
Reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal