BANGKOK // In Beijing, George W Bush managed to raise the issue of Myanmar with Hu Jintao, his Chinese counterpart, at their dinner on Friday evening, according to Chinese government officials. It seems the Chinese leader rebuffed Washington's efforts to get Beijing to step up pressure on its neighbour's military junta.
The Chinese position is clear - democracy and freedom in Myanmar, often referred to by its former name, Burma, are an internal matter - and they believe the generals are progressing on their own "road map to democracy", having recently adopted a new constitution, with elections scheduled for 2010. For most analysts, Beijing holds the only possible key to encouraging the military regime to make the transitional process towards democracy transparent, including holding free and fair elections. "We don't trust the junta," said Zin Linn, a leading spokesman for exiled dissidents.
"See what happened when the National League for Democracy [led by Aung San Suu Kyi] convincingly won the last elections in 1990 - they simply ignored the result and refused to hand over power," he said. "The only way to avoid a repeat of that is for the international community, especially China, to play a critical role in supporting genuine democracy in Burma." Mr Bush is reported to have reiterated the US position in his short discussion with the Chinese president - including the immediate release of Ms Suu Kyi and eligibility for her party, the NLD, to run unhindered in free and fair elections in two years.
In a presidential election year, few will heed Mr Bush's position on longer-term international issues. In deference to his hosts, the US president tried to make his clarion call for democracy and freedom before his visit to China. He did this in what was billed his last major policy speech on Asia, when he addressed diplomats, politicians and students in Bangkok last week, en route to Beijing. "Tyranny in Burma must be brought to an end," he told his audience. Then in a strongly symbolic gesture, he had lunch with a small group of Myanmar activists at the residence of the US ambassador to Thailand. "The American people care deeply about the people of Burma and dream for the day the people will be free," he told them.
The dissidents who met the president were impressed. "It was great; he was relaxed and joked with us," Win Min, an independent academic from Myanmar, now at Chiang Mai University in northern Thailand, said after the meeting. "He seemed to know a lot about Burma." Nevertheless, Mr Bush still cannot pronounce the detained opposition leader's name and he has not mastered the name of Senior Gen Than Shwe, the military leader.
He never once mentioned him by name during the lunch discussions, according to the dissidents. "You notice I'm saying 'general' because it's generally viewed as a one-man regime," he told a group of Myanmar journalists that interviewed him after the lunch. But diplomats and observers are concerned that Mr Bush is blowing in the wind and will not have any effect - either in Beijing or Myanmar. "The cause of Burma's freedom, democracy and human rights was poignantly served, but whether Mr Bush and his wife's gestures will make any difference on the ground is doubtful," according to Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a senior political analyst at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.
"With six months to go, he's a lame-duck president and cannot hope to affect things in Burma," said Derek Tonkin, a political commentator and former British ambassador to Thailand and Vietnam. "As for the generals ? things are going along quite well for them; there are no signs of serious opposition, and as military men, they have successfully completed the first four stages of their road map. They see absolutely no reason to change course."
Some of the dissidents, who met Mr Bush in Bangkok, urged him to consider changing policies towards the junta. "The US government should engage the Burmese generals for the long-term strategy of democracy and development on the country," Aung Naing Oo, an independent analyst based in Thailand, told the president. Mr Bush apparently remains convinced that US sanctions are working. "I think our strategy is the right strategy ? I am trying to convince others to join us on the strategy. In other words, it would be better if we could all speak with one voice," he told the journalists. Over lunch he was more considered: he told the activists that a change in policy now would reward the generals for having done nothing, according to Win Min.
Mr Bush acknowledged that what was needed was an international united front on Myanmar that included the US, Europe and Myanmar's Asian neighbours. So far that has been virtually impossible, he conceded. "But it's been difficult with some of the countries in the neighbourhood here, because we don't share the same goals. My goal is democracy. Their goal is stability," he said. Mr Bush is certainly in the right place to start quiet diplomacy. China remains the key to future international efforts to mediate in Myanmar. Although China still supports the junta, Chinese leaders are worried about the future stability of the regime, according to Chinese diplomats.
Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, met Thein Sein, Myanmar's prime minister, in Beijing before the Games. China hoped Myanmar could sort out its problems "through democratic negotiation", he said after the meeting. "China will continue to follow a good-neighbourly policy towards Myanmar, and work with the international community to help Myanmar overcome its difficulties," Mr Wen was reported to have said.
This may not be as blunt as Mr Bush's approach, but clearly the Chinese leaders are concerned about Myanmar's economic woes and its political impasse. After the Olympics, they may just heed international concern and even consider other strategic options to encourage change in Myanmar. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org