George Bush’s Legacy in Burma

Published on August 27, 2008

By Nehginpao Kipgen


Asian Tribune – August 27, 2008


With just less than 3 months away from the 2008 U.S. presidential election, campaigns for the office of a free world leader takes hectic turns: issues ranging from economy to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and lately a reminiscence of cold war confrontation in the former Soviet Republic.


Amidst world political tensions, Burma analysts and observers have begun to question if the Bush’s eight years in office have done enough to advance a democratic change in ethnically diverse Burma. Interestingly, there have been positive developments and frustrating moments.


The military leaders, generally paranoid toward the westerners, may be short of words to compliment the Bush’s administration. Reactions from the democratic opposition, however, are obviously mixed – some have been upbeat with the traditional sanctions while others are skeptical about its implications.


Digging the history of U.S. foreign policy on Burma, George Bush is undeniably seen to be one of the only U.S. Presidents to have taken a tough stance on the military junta. In fact, some unprecedented initiatives have been either implemented or at least attempted. The Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act of 2003 and the 2008 Tom Lantos Block Burmese JADE Act are some examples.


Moreover, the White House invitation of a number of dissidents on 31st October 2005 and on 12th June 2007 was a landmark development. A luncheon meeting with a group of activists at the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Bangkok on August 7, 2008 was also a significant indication of solidarity as it happened just a day before the 20th anniversary of the infamous 8.8.88 uprising.


Some observers may be deriding the futility of all those meetings as photo ops or largely symbolic. Nonetheless, whenever leader of a superpower nation takes time to sit down with advocates of democracy and human rights, it always sends a strong message to the military regime and the international community that Burma’s democracy movement is not forgotten.


Persistent personal interest taken by the First Lady is also a historic phenomenon. While bringing democracy may be the eventual goal, her deep concerns for noble laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is believed to be instrumental in Laura Bush’s passionate involvement.


When it comes to the U.S. Congress, there has been a consistent trend of overwhelming support for the Burmese democratic movement. Though they may be sharply divided along partisan lines on several other issues, the Democrats and Republicans coalesced together when it comes to Burma’s democratic movement. The unanimity shown to honor Aung San Suu Kyi with the U.S. highest civilian award – Congressional Gold Medal – on April 24, 2008 was remarkable.


During the eight years of Bush’s presidency, Burma issue was tabled as formal agenda at the U.N. Security Council on 15th September 2006. A good number of briefings and statements have also been made at the Council. The two significant presidential statements were released on 11th October 2007 and 2nd May 2008. Though some dubbed John Bolton as blunt and stubborn at times, he’s emphatic statements were likened by many Burmese observers.


It is during this administration that a maximum number of Burmese asylum seekers and refugees were admitted into the United States despite the administrative hurdles as a result of US Patriot Act of 2001 and the Real ID Act of 2005. It is also during this administration that the plights of Burma’s ethnic minorities have gotten wider international community’s attention.


Regardless of what the differing views are, President Bush’s legacy in Burma’s democratic movement may be described in a single line as: ‘a policy too much emphasis on the sticks and too little on the carrots’. His approaches were sincere, but largely inefficacious.


Had the international community taken a concerted strategy, a different Burma could have been seen today. Although the Bush legacy in Burma may not be at a level many wished to see happen, he and his administration will be remembered as one of the staunchest supporters in the history of Burma’s democratic movement.


Nehginpao Kipgen is the General Secretary of US-based Kuki International Forum ( and a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma (1947-2004).