Thank you, Laura; please tell Michelle!
By Nehginpao Kipgen
It is less than a week now before the 44th president takes office Jan. 20. It has come the day for the Bush family to bid adieu to the White House and begin a new journey of life. The significant role played by the first lady, Laura Bush, is also coming to an end. Yet her legacy will remain a living history.
Laura Bush took several historic and unprecedented initiatives to highlight the plights of some of the most oppressed people of the world. Among others, her advocacy on behalf of human-rights abuse victims in the Union of Burma has brought tremendous attention from the international community.
Some might have criticized or lambasted her for too much involvement in some of the crises of the world. Regardless of what the critics say, Laura Bush deserves appreciation and recognition for her goodwill and dedication to the cause of millions of hapless people.
At the opening session of the 61st U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 19, 2006, Laura Bush convened a roundtable discussion to draw the international community´s attention on human-rights abuses in Burma. Participants included senior U.N. and U.S. government officials, academics and nongovernmental organizations working to address humanitarian and human-rights concerns in Burma. In a historic meeting, Mrs. Bush welcomed a group of Burmese dissidents at the White House on June 12, 2007.
In the aftermath of the Cyclone Nargis, it was Laura Bush who made a moving statement from the White House’s James S. Brady Press Briefing Room on May 5, 2008. When asked: “Mrs. Bush, why such an historic interest? This is a first, for a first lady to come to this podium and talk about a cyclone. Why such a historic interest?” Her response was: “Well, you know I’ve been interested in Burma for a long time. It started really with an interest in Aung San Suu Kyi and reading her works and just the story of a Nobel Prize winner who’s been under house arrest for so long, whose party was overwhelmingly elected in an election and then never able to take office. And so it started with an interest in her, and then just the more I’ve seen, the more critical I see the need is for the people in Burma to be for the world to pay attention to the people of Burma, and for the world to put pressure on the military regime.”
It was an eye-opener for many in the international community when the first lady and her daughter Barbara made their way through the muddy ground on a rainy day, on Aug. 7, 2008, to meet with thousands of Burmese refugees at Mae La refugee camp and Mae Tao Clinic at the Thai-Burmese border.
When her husband was calling for “an end to the tyranny inBurma” at a speech in Bangkok, Laura Bush emphasized human rights abuses and said, “The best solution would be if General Than Shwe’s regime would start real dialogue” with ethnic minorities and pro-democracy groups.
In a statement commemorating the one-year anniversary of the 2007 demonstration, Laura Bush said: “The United States reiterates our long-standing call for the Burmese regime to engage in a genuine dialogue with all democratic and ethnic minority leaders, with the goal of making a credible transition to civilian, democratic government. We call on the regime to release Aung San Suu Kyi and all other political prisoners.” These are some of the instances where Mrs. Bush personally got involved in the Burmese democratic movement. In the process, she had indeed fired up the international community. But sadly, it does not bring an end to military rule.
As you are packing up to vacate the White House, Laura, please tell Michelle Obama, the incoming first lady, to continue what you have started. This very important mission needs to continue until we see a genuine democratic society in Burma where the rights of every ethnic group are equally respected.
Nehginpao Kipgen is the General Secretary of U.S.-based Kuki International Forum and a researcher on political conflicts in modern Burma.
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