Tuesday, December 15, 2015

United States must stand with Burma


We must support Burma as it transitions from authoritarianism to liberal democracy.


(Photo: Mandel Ngan, AFP/Getty Images)


Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has been a steadfast voice for freedom in Burma. Like others, she suffered for this cause, enduring personal loss and long isolation during 15 years under house arrest. In spite of the oppression, she never gave up, and on Nov. 8, her National League for Democracy party won a landslide victory in a nationwide vote. This election is an important step for a country still emerging from decades of military rule, but the journey to secure liberty is far from over.

Burma's military and government have recognized the NLD victory and promised a peaceful transition of power. The United States and other free societies must sustain support for the new government in the critical times ahead. 

As first lady, I worked to raise awareness of the plight of the Burmese people and the courageous leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi. Three years ago, I finally met Daw Suu in Washington, D.C. I was part of the ceremony to present her with the Congressional Gold Medal for her courage and defense of democracy and human rights. I was struck by her resolve and — despite all her country has been through — her unyielding optimism that one day Burma would be free.

Since that day, I have met many of Burma's rising young leaders as part of the Bush Institute's work to advance human freedom around the world. When Zin Mar Aungvisited us in Dallas, she recounted her 11 years as a political prisoner — many in solitary confinement. She is neither bitter nor defeated. Like dozens of political prisoners, she was elected to parliament on Nov. 8.

There are still political prisoners in Burma. Two Bush Institute young leaders, Phyoe Phyoe Aung and Lin Htet Naing, remain detained with other student leaders who peacefully protested for education reform. All of Burma's political prisoners must be released.

Through the Bush Institute's Liberty and Leadership Forum, young leaders, like Htoot May, who was also elected to parliament, are working to expand their knowledge and hone their leadership skills so that they can be part of building Burma's future. They are journalists, educators, doctors, activists and now, elected officials. They are Buddhists, Christians and Muslims. Despite their many differences, they share a common vision of democracy in Burma.

With more than 135 ethnic groups, Burma's diversity should become an asset, rather than a wedge in society. Pluralism and tolerance can triumph over hatred. Discrimination against Burma's minorities, particularly Rohingya Muslims, is alarming and deserves our concern.

Burma's refugees cannot be forgotten. An estimated 150,000 refugees remain in camps on the Thai-Burma border. I visited the camps with my daughter, Barbara, in 2008. We saw the harsh conditions in which the refugees were living after fleeing civil war. We met doctors, parents and teachers. We saw children who were born in the camps and did not know a different life.

Days before the historic vote on Nov. 8, 2015, thousands of NLD supporters rallied on the edge of Rangoon. The scene was reminiscent of the 1988 gathering nearShwedagon Pagoda, when Aung San Suu Kyi first spoke of her hope for a multi-party democracy. When the former military junta denied the NLD's victory in 1990, Burma's courageous freedom advocates remained resolute.

Today, as in 1990, the people of Burma have made the choice for freedom. This time the will of the people seems poised to prevail. As a defender of freedom, the United States has an obligation to stand with the people of Burma. Support for the country's transition must remain a priority now and for the next administration. Democracies make better neighbors, and it is in our nation's interest to see Burma's freedom advocates succeed.

Laura Bush was the first lady of the United States from 2001-2009. She is the author of Laura Bush: Spoken from the Heart.

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