September 23, 2008 / 9:39 PM / 11 years ago

Laura Bush presses Myanmar's neighbors over rights

U.S. First Lady Laura Bush addresses the White House Symposium on Advancing Global Literacy in New York September 22, 2008. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

GOVERNORS ISLAND, New York (Reuters) - With the Statue of Liberty in the background, U.S. first lady Laura Bush urged China and India on Tuesday to press Myanmar’s military junta to begin respecting the rights of its citizens.

About a year after the Myanmar government squashed pro-democracy protests in a violent crackdown, the first lady and President George W. Bush met over lunch with dissidents from a range of countries including Myanmar, Cuba and North Korea.

Myanmar, previously known as Burma, has been high on the first lady’s agenda over the past two years and last month she visited a refugee camp in Thailand a few miles from the border with Myanmar to push her cause.

“I want to urge all the neighbors of Burma — China and India and other neighbors — to continue trying to talk to the Burmese general Than Shwe to see if he can’t do what all the world ... wants him to do, and that is start respecting the rights of the people of Burma,” she told reporters on Tuesday.

She called on the military junta, which has been in power for more than four decades, to begin a “real dialogue for a transition to democracy” and speak with opposition leaders.

Myanmar’s military junta has refused to accept losing a 1990 election and has cracked down numerous times on pro-democracy demonstrators, killing thousands.

The United States has taken in thousands of refugees who have fled Myanmar over the past few years. Washington has also imposed sanctions on Myanmar’s state-owned companies in an attempt to pressure its leaders to adopt democratic reforms.

U Kovida, a dissident who fled after the protests last year and attended the luncheon with the president and Laura Bush, told reporters afterward that he hoped “we can shame the government” of Myanmar with peaceful protest.

Earlier on Tuesday, Myanmar’s longest-serving political prisoner, journalist Win Tin, was freed after 19 years in jail. However, earlier this month a prominent democracy activist who had been in hiding for a year was arrested.

Reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky; Editing by David Alexander and Eric Walsh

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