Burmese Expatriates Bid Farewell to the First Lady

It is less than 10 days before America's 44th president takes office on January 20. It has come the day for the Bush's 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 in an administration that has precious few high spots.

Laura Bush took several historic and unprecedented initiatives to highlight the plight of some of the most oppressed people of the world. Among others, her advocacy for human rights abuses in the Union of Burma has brought the attention of 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 for the cause of millions of hapless people.

At the opening session of the 61st UN General Assembly, on September 19, 2006, Mrs Bush convened a roundtable discussion to draw the international community's attention on human rights abuses in Burma. Participants included senior UN and US government officials, academics, and non-governmental 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 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 was 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 in a rainy day, on August 7, 2008, to meet with thousands of Burmese refugees at Mae La refugee camp and Mae Tao Clinic at the Thai-Burma border.

When her husband was calling for "an end to the tyranny in Burma" 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 one year anniversary statement of the 2007 demonstration, Mrs 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 the 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 till 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 US-based Kuki International Forum (www.kukiforum.com) and a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma (1947-2004).