August 6, 2008 / 1:09 PM / 11 years ago

Bush's Thailand trip turns heat on Myanmar

BANGKOK (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush flew into Bangkok on Wednesday on the latest leg of a pre-Olympics Asian tour, although his focus in Thailand is mainly on the “outpost of tyranny” junta in neighboring Myanmar.

President Bush shakes hands with Thailand's Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej after a joint statement at the Government House in Bangkok August 6, 2008. REUTERS/Larry Downing

In a broad speech on U.S. involvement in Asia to be delivered on Thursday, Bush will repeat his mantra for the former Burma’s military rulers “to release Aung San Suu Kyi”, the opposition leader and Nobel laureate detained for the last five years.

In all, Suu Kyi, 63, has been in prison or under house arrest for nearly 13 of the last 19 years.

After a meeting with Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, Bush praised Bangkok for its role in helping funnel emergency relief to the victims of Cyclone Nargis, which killed 134,000 when it slammed into Myanmar’s Irrawaddy delta on May 2.

“We want to see prosperity and freedom restored to Burma,” he told reporters.

On Thursday, he will cover the whole gamut of U.S. policy in Asia, from North Korea’s nuclear program to regional security and trans-Pacific trade to his strongest criticism yet of China’s attitude to human rights.

“The United States believes the people of China deserve the fundamental liberty that is the natural right of all human beings,” Bush will say, according to excerpts of Thursday’s speech released in advance.

“So America stands in firm opposition to China’s detention of political dissidents, human rights advocates and religious activists,” he will say.

However, the timing of his visit and the schedule in place for him and his wife in Thailand leaves little doubt about his other main message.

“8-8-88 DEMOCRACY”

As well as the start of the Olympics in Beijing, Friday is the 20th anniversary of Myanmar’s “8-8-88” democracy uprising, when an estimated 3,000 people were killed when troops were sent in to crush nationwide protests.

On the eve of this numerically auspicious day, Bush will have lunch with activists who took part in the uprising before fleeing for their lives to Thailand, where they have campaigned for an end to military rule that stretches back to 1962.

Laura Bush, who has adopted Myanmar human rights as a personal cause, will travel to the Thai border to visit a refugee camp and health clinic for those fleeing the ethnic guerrilla wars that have roiled Myanmar’s hinterlands for decades.

“Together, we seek an end to tyranny in Burma,” Bush will say, echoing his Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, who has referred to Myanmar as an “outpost of tyranny”.

Under Bush, Washington has been at the forefront of the West tightening up sanctions against Myanmar, a policy criticized for merely increasing the international isolation in which junta supremo Than Shwe appears to revel.

Slideshow (2 Images)

The depth of distrust of the outside world was highlighted in May when the junta refused U.S. and French offers of military helicopters and ships to assist the victims of Cyclone Nargis.

“Nargis has shown that if the U.S. wants to help the Burmese people, they need to have some kind of relationship with the Burmese military government,” Aung Naing Oo, one of the exiled dissidents set to meet Bush on Thursday, told Reuters.

“Than Shwe wants to isolate Burma. If the U.S. tries to isolate Burma, they are simply doing Than Shwe’s work for him,” he said.

Additional reporting and writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by David Fox

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