• Arts
  • September 7, 2007
  • 7 minutes read

First Lady Makes Issue of Myanmar’s Junta

First Lady Makes Issue of Myanmar’s Junta

When the military government in Myanmar began crushing street demonstrations last month, the State Department protested. President Bush later issued a statement condemning the arrests of protesters. The administration’s most forceful response, though, came from Laura Bush.

In a gesture of public policy not normally associated with first ladies, she telephoned the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, on Friday and called on him to denounce the junta that rules Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma.

“I wanted the U.N. to be on record saying, at least, that we know what’s happened in this recent crackdown,” she said in an interview on Wednesday.

Mrs. Bush, of course, is well known for her campaigns on literacy, education and health, but in the autumn of her husband’s presidency, she has turned the fate of Myanmar and its jailed opposition leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, into a cause of her own.

She has met repeatedly with Mr. Ban’s envoy to Myanmar, Ibrahim A. Gambari, and last year moderated a discussion at the United Nations to draw attention to the country’s repressive policies.

In May, she joined the 16 women in the Senate to appeal publicly for Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi’s release. In June, she met in the White House with refugees and exiles from Myanmar.

In the interview on Wednesday, she called for a new vote on a Security Council resolution, eight months after one sponsored by the United States was vetoed by Russia and China as meddling in Myanmar’s internal affairs.

“In fact, the United States thinks that it is an issue for the Security Council, both because of the human rights abuses that are going on in Burma, as well as the instability of the government,” she said. (Mrs. Bush, like the United States government, does not recognize the military government’s decision to rename the country Myanmar and uses the country’s traditional name, Burma.)

Mrs. Bush, 60, disputed the notion that hers was an unorthodox role or one that seemed out of character. She noted that she had traveled extensively with — and without — her husband and had previously spoken out on matters of policy and politics.

“I think 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,” she said in the interview, held in her office in the East Wing, where the bookshelves are filled with the trappings of her more familiar public persona: children’s books.

Still, Mrs. Bush has come late to a cause that is, for most Americans, fairly obscure.

“As I’ve lived here longer, I realize I became more aware of a chance to speak out about these issues that especially concern me,” she said. “And I wanted to take advantage of that.”

It remains to be seen whether Mrs. Bush’s advocacy has a meaningful effect. A previous involvement in foreign policy earned her a dose of criticism. In Egypt in 2005, she praised President Hosni Mubarak’s “very bold step” toward democracy for holding an election that was widely denounced as a sham.

Josef Silverstein, professor emeritus at Rutgers University, said Mrs. Bush’s public positions would likely have little effect on Myanmar’s government, which has severely repressed the democratic opposition since ignoring the results of parliamentary elections 17 years ago.

He said more than public declarations from an unelected person was necessary.

“It can’t be the statement of a first lady,” he said. “It just doesn’t carry any weight in Burmese corridors.”

Although Myanmar’s government has withstood criticism and a decade of sanctions, Mrs. Bush argued against resignation on the issue.

“So ‘why bother,’ I guess, is the question people ask,” she said. “But I think the answer is, ‘Why not?’ I mean, why not continue to put pressure on the regime in any way we can?”