MAE SOT, Thailand (Reuters) - U.S. First Lady Laura Bush tried to boost pressure on the Myanmar government to accept democratic reforms when she visited a large refugee camp in Thailand just a few miles from the border on Thursday.
The Mae La camp, 10 km (6 miles) from the Myanmar border, opened almost 25 years ago and is filled with 39,000 refugees who are waiting to return home or be resettled elsewhere.
Her visit came a day before the 20th anniversary of the August 8, 1988 uprising in Myanmar, when the army killed about 3,000 people in the military junta’s brutal suppression of protests.
“Twenty years have gone by, everything is still the same or maybe worse in Burma,” Bush told reporters after a two-hour tour.
“We know Burma is a very rich country, rich with natural resources and the junta uses those resources to prop themselves up for their own benefit, not for the benefit of the people of Burma,” she said after the tour with her daughter, Barbara.
Having ruled the former Burma for more than four decades, Myanmar’s military junta has refused to accept losing a 1990 election and has cracked down numerous times on pro-democracy demonstrators, killing thousands.
Bush also visited a clinic 4 km from the border where refugees are treated and prosthetic limbs are fitted for those injured by land mines as they tried to escape Myanmar.
The United States has pushed for democratic reforms and offered millions of dollars in aid after Cyclone Nargis left 138,000 dead or missing. The junta has largely shunned international aid and strictly limited aid workers’ efforts.
Bush said it was unclear if U.S. policy was succeeding in isolating the junta because so many refugees were being resettled elsewhere, but efforts to crimp leader Than Shwe were working.
“There are a number of sanctions aimed directly at Than Shwe and his cohorts in the military ... we do think some of those are being effective, that they’re being squeezed out,” she said.
Most refugees in the camp Bush visited live in open-air huts with leaves for roofs and lack electricity and running water. One camp leader said they would like to go home to Myanmar.
“Repatriation with dignity and safety is not possible right now,” Mahn Htun Htun told Bush.
Htun said a major concern among leaders at the camp is that roughly 13,000 new arrivals have not been registered and that there is not enough food.
Bush and U.S. officials said they could not confirm that number, noting a census of the camp had not been done in years.
Until three years ago, U.S. law made it difficult for the so-called Karen refugees from Myanmar to enter the United States but that has since been changed, a U.S. official said.
Dennis Wilder, senior director of Asian affairs at the White House National Security Council, said 30,000 refugees have been accepted since 2005.
Bush, a former school teacher, toured through open-air classes on English and mathematics at the camp. She also met families about to depart for the United States and others being interviewed to be relocated to America or other countries.
“My life in refugee (camp) is better than Burma but I don’t have opportunity to go outside of my camp,” one student in an English class wrote on a chalkboard.
Editing by Paul Tait