US President Bush in Bangkok but with Myanmar in his sights

Other News Materials 6 August 2008 16:41 (UTC +04:00)

US President George W Bush arrived in Thailand Wednesday for a two-day visit that will highlight the two countries' 175 years of friendly relations and Washington's much less amicable ties with Thailand's neighbour to the west, Myanmar, dpa reported.

Bush, accompanied by his wife Laura and entourage, arrived at Bangkok's military airport Don Mueang, flying in from South Korea.

Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej was scheduled to host a dinner for the first couple at Government House Wednesday night.

Bush was last in Thailand in 2003 to attend the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit.

During this stay in Thailand, Bush plans to highlight the kingdom's role as a major non-NATO ally of the US and "one of our best relationships in East Asia," Dennis Wilder, a top official in the National Security Council, said last week.

US-Thai bilateral relations date back to the signing of the Treaty of Amity and Commerce on March 20, 1833, during the presidency of Andrew Jackson, and Thailand's King Phra Nang Klao, or King Rama III of the Chakri Dynasty.

On Thursday, Bush will deliver a major policy speech on US relations with East Asia, deemed his "farewell" address to the region during his dwindling presidency.

Myanmar, which Bush once fingered as one of the "outposts of tyranny" together with Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Zimbabwe and Belarus, is expected to be a target for Bush's pro-democracy rhetoric.

In an unprecedented move, the president will lunch with Myanmar dissidents in Bangkok on Thursday.

Also on Thursday, first lady Laura Bush plans to travel to the Thai-Myanmar border to visit Dr Cynthia Maung, who runs a clinic for Karen victims of the Myanmar military campaign in the Karen State of eastern Myanmar, also called Burma.

"It is great that they are seeing Burmese activists in Thailand," said Win Min, a lecturer on Myanmar affairs at Chiang Mai University. "It sends a strong message to the people of Burma that this administration supports human rights."

Both Bush and the first lady have been outspoken critics of Myanmar's ruling junta, and supporters of Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi who has been under house arrest for the past five years and 13 of the past 18 years.

"Different from other US presidents, Bush has done more on Burma by bringing the issue to the top international level at the UN Security Council," said Win Min. "He has kept the Burma issue in the international limelight."

Myanmar has been under military rule since 1962.

The current regime has earned itself near universal condemnation for its bloody crackdown on a pro-democracy movement in 1988, refusal to acknowledge the outcome of a general election in 1990, and another brutal crackdown on protests led by Buddhist monks in September, 2007.

Most recently, Myanmar's generals sparked an international uproar by initially blocking the free flow of emergency relief and aid workers to succour millions of Myanmar people devastated by Cyclone Nargis that smashed in to the country on May 20-3, leaving 140,00 dead or missing.

While Bush had been persistently hard-hitting on Myanmar's human rights abuses, he has been criticized at home for attending the Beijing Olympics in light of China's dubious human rights record, especially in Tibet.

"I'm going as a president who happens to be a sports fan," Bush said in an interview prior to his Thailand visit. He was scheduled to depart for Beijing Thursday afternoon.