August 11th, 2008
10:24 AM ET

First Lady puts spotlight back on Myanmar

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/08/11/art.laurabushmyanmar.jpg caption="First Lady Laura Bush visits Karen refugees in national costumes during her visit to Mae La refugee camp in Thailand's Mae Sot town, Thursday."]
Dan Rivers
Bangkok Correspondent

It was never going to put the press pack in the best of moods. A start time of 4:45 is so early, it’s almost a late night out for many of us. But we dutifully turned up to have our bags sniffed by a bored looking German Shepherd whose tailed had been curiously cut off (Security risk may be? Danger of flying cups and saucers, if he wags it too much??). It was then off in a huge convoy of mini-buses, SUVs, limos and police cars. A brief glimpse for me as to what it would be like to be royalty, having every major road emptied of traffic, and lined by Thai policemen. Our plane to the border was slightly less regal though – a C130, with netting seats in the back for the press and legions of secret service guys. An hour later, we arrived in Mae Sot, a northern Thai border town, close to Myanmar formerly Burma, to a torrential downpour.

Speeding though the lush green jungle along a surprisingly good road for exactly 45 minutes before arriving at Mae La refugee camp. I say camp but it’s really a mini-town of more than 38,000 refugees, mostly ethnic Karen who’ve fled from fighting over the border. Houses are meticulously built from bamboo, with roofs of over-lapping leaves. Laura Bush and daughter Barbara, along with their coterie of advisers, security guards and press officials must have seemed like an alien invasion to these isolated people. I wonder how the Karen viewed the insane rush that accompanied the whole event, 3 minutes here, 4 minutes there, the press being almost dragged and pushed from photo op. to photo op.

The Karen certainly aren’t in a hurry – many have been stuck in this camp with no chance of leaving for more than 20 years. The camp has its own shops, schools and economy, but it is still effectively an open prison for these people, who desperately want to return to their homeland.

We managed to chat to one family who were lucky enough to have been given permission to be resettled in South Carolina – the contrast from the camp in the Thai jungle to the southern United States will be huge and daunting. Yet they seemed excited. After years here living in a bamboo hut with no electricity and no running water, surely any change would be considered good.

Laura Bush has taken the issue of Myanmar to her heart – critics of her husband’s policies though would argue US sanctions are not working, and are only serving to increase the poverty of ordinary people. But as rushed, and incongruous as the First Lady’s visit was, it did throw a spotlight on the terrible plight of these refugees.

There are eight other camps like Mae La – with more than 140 thousand people in total, left in a bureaucratic limbo – unable to settle properly in Thailand, unable to return home, many hoping and praying they will get their resettlement papers and have the chance to join the more than 4,000 other people from Mae La who’ve started over in the United States.

Filed under: 360° Radar • Cyclone • Global 360° • Myanmar
soundoff (14 Responses)
  1. Pat

    I applaud the First Lady as well. But I have to wonder when our World will have any semblance of balance. While we generously donate to war and warring factions, people around the Globe are starving, dying from illness or in the cross fires of the wars we're supporting. One tenth of the Trillions spent in Iraq would likey have supplied food, medical care and shelters for all the needy throughout the world. But then, we would have to find a way to get the dollars into the hands of those who would use it for the purpose intended!

    August 12, 2008 at 8:01 am |
  2. Claudia, Houston, Tx

    Mrs. Bush can't be held personally responsible for the idiot people voted into the White House. It makes me wonder how she ever married him.

    August 12, 2008 at 1:11 am |
  3. Trisha, North Carolina

    I think it's great that Mrs Bush is focused on Myanmar. My only disappointment is that she was absent in the Katrina disaster. I think we are supposed to help our own first or maybe help those who first need the help.

    What about all the millions that are without in Darfar and this has been going on for some time?

    August 11, 2008 at 8:33 pm |
  4. Sarah

    The number of Burmese refugees in American is slowly rising. I actually work with Burmese refugee families. I'm glad that Mrs. Bush is drawing attention to the county, but it's not enough.

    August 11, 2008 at 6:04 pm |
  5. AFC, Toronto

    If that old broad really cared about people, she could start right in her own country. She has stood by watching her despicable husband loot the national treasury for eight years causing wide-spread poverty, unemployment, and hardship for ordinary working people. What a joke!

    August 11, 2008 at 4:53 pm |
  6. AFC, Toronto

    She is married to evil. She condones evil. She is surrounded by evil. She must be evil. Wake up, you lemmings!

    August 11, 2008 at 4:45 pm |
  7. Annie Lee

    I met Mrs Bush back in 2004 at the Republican convention in Florida. She is very charming, elegant and beautiful. The camera doesn't do her justice.

    Annie Lee
    El Dorado Hills, California

    August 11, 2008 at 3:42 pm |
  8. GF, Los Angeles

    I'm surprised to see Laura Bush rallying for another country in their country. She always seemed like the poster child of a politicians wife – shut up, smile and know your role as arm candy.

    August 11, 2008 at 2:17 pm |
  9. Susan


    There seems to be a mutual respect between the Bush family and the Chinese government going on at the Olympics in Beijing China. I am hoping that a seed can be planted in the minds of the Chinese government as they could have the most influence to help with the Myanmar disaster crisis.

    The eyes of the world are watching and the Chinese certaining are trying to put their country and people in the best light.


    August 11, 2008 at 1:24 pm |
  10. Renee

    I am so glad to see Mrs. Bush taking on her own voice. She and Jenna were on Larry King one night promoting their book. During that interview she said she did not always agree with the President and it was refreshing to hear that she was in fact her own person.
    I wondering what is next for Mrs. Bush. For some reason I don't see her watching the pansies growing in Crawford for too long.

    August 11, 2008 at 12:51 pm |
  11. Larry

    I've never known of Mrs. Bush (43) to be anything other than a charming first lady. Never read anything that would give me the impression that she is a divisive person; perhaps she is the last of her kind.

    August 11, 2008 at 11:46 am |
  12. Martina Ilstad

    since today i was not a big fan of Mrs Bush.but today i saw this pictures,and i am pretty suprise.there is a member in this family,who makes humanpoitic.i realy thank her doing this for the forgotten poeple of

    August 11, 2008 at 11:15 am |
  13. Annie Kate

    Laura Bush has always seemed like a very sympathetic woman to me and I'm glad she is shining the spotlight on Myanmar again – heaven knows it needs it. I just wonder though – after refocusing the attention on the problem does she have any suggestions for how to alleviate the suffering?

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    August 11, 2008 at 10:54 am |
  14. Cindy

    I am glad that Mrs. Bush and her daughter Barbara are trying to get the spotlight back on Myanmar. It seems like everyone has forgotten it. It's a case of out of sight out of mind...that's the way we function here in the states unfortunately. I hope that by them going there that people will remember that Myanmar and it's people still need a lot of help. Even though the media has stopped reporting on it doesn't mean that everything is fine there again.


    August 11, 2008 at 10:41 am |

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