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Laura Bush Speaks Out

Buddhist monks explore the wreckageSeven years into her husband’s presidency, First Lady Laura Bush quickly took the opportunity presented by the catastrophic cyclone that hit Myanmar on Saturday to urge the military junta there to accept international aid.

No doubt they can use it. On Sunday, reports feared 350 people were dead. Today, three days after the storm, reports say over 22,500 dead and over 41,000 still missing. These figures are expected to grow.

Laura Bush has been the administration’s voice on human rights in Myanmar since leading a UN roundtable on the country in September of 2006.

If there’s any confusion as to where it is we’re talking about, it could be because the current administration still refers to the country as Burma—like the shaving cream—mainly for sentimental reasons. The military leaders there changed the name to Myanmar in 1989, along with the name of the capital city, formerly Rangoon, now Yangon.

Burma had a brief period of democracy beginning in 1948, after Britain ended nearly 60 years of colonial rule.

The military then took over and ran the country starting in 1962 under socialist general Ne Win. He stepped down in 1988, and in the rumblings for another crack at democracy the present military junta grabbed power. Like a lot of evil regimes, it stands accused of atrocities that include rape and human trafficking. The real hot-button issue of late has been the government’s detention of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, a pro-democracy activist whose father Aung San had negotiated the country’s independence from England and was subsequently assassinated by political rivals.

The history of the country dates back to 900 B.C.. Democracy was only in place for 14 of those nearly 3,000 years.

Several kingdoms had good runs, like the early Burmans that adopted Theraveda Buddhism and constructed magnificent temples until Kublai Khan invaded them in 1277—ending a 233-year reign.

By comparison, the US celebrates 232 years this Fourth of July.

Two days after the cyclone, Bush stepped up her rhetoric in USA TODAY, saying “I urge the government to accept aid from the United States and from the entire international community right now while the needs of their people are so critical.”

What’s striking about The First Lady’s tough talk is the magnitude of the tragedy still unfolding there. Why on earth would anyone take such an obvious human disaster as an opportunity to advance a political agenda?

Especially when you consider the excruciating irony that the US was guilty of refusing foreign aid in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a disaster that continues to be bungled and covered up by the government and the US Army Corps of Engineers.

If the US and other countries want to help survivors of Cyclone Nargis, fine. The Associated Press reports today that Thailand is already providing assistance, adding that relief efforts have been difficult due to ravaged roads and communication systems. Not because the military junta is refusing help. India has also already sent naval ships with food and medicine.

In fact, although they conspicuously refused help after the 2004 tsunami that flooded coastline throughout the Indian Ocean, Myanmar’s diplomatically isolated junta was forced to appeal for international help this time. They already asked for help, and some countries have already responded!

So what is our First Lady grandstanding about? Unable to let it rest, she now says their state-run media is at fault for not issuing a timely warning to citizens in the storm’s path, adding to the number of casualties.

For his part, president George W. Bush is now telling Myanamar’s leadership that they “must allow our disaster assessment teams into the country.” And after watching the liberation

of Iraq on TV for the past five years, what country wouldn’t welcome an increased American presence?

While it can be argued that a debtor nation locked in a hugely expensive war is in a more difficult position to help than say, China—helping out appeals to our American sense of doing the right thing. To that end, the US today announced $3 million in aid.

Whether you call it Myanmar, or Burma, as our nostalgic leaders do, people there are undoubtedly suffering. But wouldn’t it be nice if we could just do the right thing without attaching a bunch of strings that will tie us to the inner workings of an independent country in Southeast Asia? Or is the administration nostalgic for those days, as well?