BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Thursday, 27 September 2007, 09:28 GMT 10:28 UK
Washington diary: Bush on Burma
By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

US President George W Bush addresses the UN on Burma
At the UN, Mr Bush announced tighter US sanctions against Burma

It was both uplifting and odd to hear US President George W Bush vent his anger over Burma on Tuesday.

Personally, I thought it was a master stroke that he barely even mentioned Iran. Blithe indifference was the ultimate snub to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's rhetorical rants.

Burma came along as a welcome distraction. Let's hope it becomes more than that.

The country deserves the embrace of Lady Liberty and the benefit of George W Bush's doctrine of exporting freedom. Its case, to borrow a phrase, is a slam dunk.

Burma achieved independence from British colonial rule in 1948. One of the key figures in bringing about that independence was Aung San, father of the woman who has been languishing under house arrest for almost two decades, Aung San Suu Kyi.

At the time of independence, Burma was considered to be a jewel in the post-colonial crown.

It had abundant natural resources. More importantly it was well endowed with human resources, enjoying one of the highest literacy rates in South East Asia, as well as one of the lowest infant mortality rates.

After four decades of cruel misrule by uniforms weighed down with medals, it has become a basket case.


It is those natural resources, especially gas, that may now be its continued undoing.


China, the dragon that keeps breathing new life into the absurdly corrupt and incompetent cabal of generals running the place, is apparently too hungry for energy to say no to the natural gas piped in from neighbouring Burma.

China has traditionally opposed notions of interference in the internal affairs of any country, however loathsome the regime.

And if Beijing, a major arms supplier to Sudan, can't even support UN Security Council resolutions on Darfur, then it is hardly going to co-operate on Burma, which is, so to speak, in its own backyard.

The only thing, in my view, that could break the impasse is if the Burmese generals create a bloodbath of such proportions that the rest of the world will draw embarrassing comparisons with the Tiananmen Square crackdown, which the Chinese so dearly want us to forget in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Into the shadows

On my last visit to Burma in 1999, I was walking through the once beautiful streets of Rangoon when an elderly woman in rags sidled up to me. Her face was smeared with dirt. Her ragged clothes were disintegrating on her crippled body.

I assumed she had come to beg. But instead of an outstretched hand, she offered a greeting in perfect English.

"Forgive me for asking," she said in a whisper. "But are you from England? I apologise for my appearance. It has become so difficult to be normal and dignified in this country. Thank you for visiting. Don't forget us. Please don't."

I wanted to ask her where she had learnt her English, why she had fallen on such hard times, where she lived, what she intended to do in the future?

But the old woman, who was probably not that old at all, sidled off into the shadows.

The Burmese have borne their suffering with plenty of dignity - few more so than Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader who won the general election in 1990 and the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.

By rights she should be Burma's leader. Instead, she is the best-known dissident alive in the world today.

Steel behind beauty

The first time I went to see her there was in 1997. We travelled to Burma disguised as tourists. The authorities don't issue journalist visas as a rule.

Aung San Suu Kyi

"What can we bring Daw Aung?" we asked the contact who had set up the meeting in Rangoon. "Oh, she wants supplies and reading matter!" was the reply.

I had assumed she wanted the latest edition of the Amnesty International Almanac or perhaps Nelson Mandela's memoirs. Supplies, I assumed, meant batteries or light bulbs.

What she did in fact want were the last four editions of Vogue, perhaps a Marie Claire or two and a few jars of face cream. This was utterly reassuring.

Aung San Suu Kyi has an Oxford degree and was married to Michael, an Oxford academic and a leading authority on Buddhism.

She has given her life to her people and needs to prove to no-one the seriousness of her intent. But this woman, who also happens to be exceptionally beautiful, wanted to preserve a degree of normality and dignity under very abnormal circumstances.

We handed over the gifts, she prepared delicious curry for my cameraman and me, and then we conducted a tough interview about how she could actually run a country as ethnically divided and brutalised as Burma, if she ever got the chance. Her answers were humble but firm. There is steel behind the jasmine scent.

Symbol of resistance

The second interview, almost three years later, was conducted under very sad circumstances. Her husband Michael had been diagnosed with cancer. He was dying and the Burmese authorities had encouraged her to go and see him on his deathbed in England.

Their motives were clear. Once she had left the country, the woman who was once elected to become president would never be allowed to return. The symbol of resistance would languish in exile.

Aung San Suu Kyi had to choose between her husband, whom she had barely seen in recent years and her people. What made matters worse was that her two teenage sons, Kim and Alexander, were calling her up and pleading with her to come back.

She was angry with me for having raised the subject. "This is my personal life, Matt. It has nothing to do with the plight of the Burmese people."

But it did. Many thousands had suffered much more than she had done. But her tragic dilemma of being caught between the loyalty to her people and the loyalty to her immediate family only existed because the generals had decreed it so.

Deadly serious

She agreed to the interview and we recorded half an hour on a small digital camera. After the interview, the producer, the cameraman and I split up, each with a copy of the tape.

Beijing, the only outside power with real influence over the generals, will be judged by its response

We were all followed by the secret police and only managed to shake them off after a three-hour cat-and-mouse chase which involved darting in and out of hotel kitchens, cloakroom windows and underground car parks.

At first it was terrifying, then it seemed comical. Next morning we landed in Bangkok, which is less than an hour away by plane from Rangoon and learned that Michael had died. How must she have felt that day? How must her boys have felt without the comfort of their mother?

Today Burma is at a crossroads. Will 1988 be repeated? Will there be rivers of blood, or a much-belated flowering of democracy?

The situation is deadly serious and Beijing, the only outside power with real influence over the generals, will be judged by its response as much as Moscow was in 1989 when the Berlin Wall was breached.

Then the Soviet Union did nothing to breathe new life into a moribund regime. What will China do?

Send us your comments in reaction to Matt Frei's Washington diary and the situation in Burma using the link below:


Matt Frei Troubled times
Rollercoaster ride as America wakes up to economic crisis

Jan - Jun 2008
Jul - Dec 2007
Jan - Jun 2007
2006 entries

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific