George and Laura Bush Find Their Cause in Myanmar

Since he left office, the former president has been silent about many foreign-policy issues. But when police arrested a Burmese student, he and the former first lady were moved to make their voices heard.

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Student protesters look out from a Myanmar police vehicle as they arrive at the court in Letpadan on March 11, 2015.

Photographer: Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images

Phyoe Phyoe Aung, at 27 years old, is young to have been a political prisoner. She was even younger when she was locked up. In June 2008, Aung, a college student, was arrested in Yangon, Myanmar—formerly known as Rangoon, the capital of Burma—on a trip to provide disaster relief after Cyclone Nargis.  She spent three years and four months in Mawlamyine Prison for helping to re-establish the All Burma Federation of Student Unions, and for her involvement with a group active in protesting the Burmese military junta. Since her release, Aung has continued her work with the student unions, agitating for student's rights, women's rights, human rights. On Tuesday, Aung took part in a demonstration in the city of Letpadan, 90 miles north of Yangon, against a new law that gives Myanmar's central government greater educational control. She, along with more than 120 other protestors, all calling for transparency and education reform, was arrested. The Associated Press reported that hundreds of riot police violently charged at the protesting students, “pummeling them with batons and then dragging them into trucks.”

On Thursday, former President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, issued a statement from Dallas about the situation, and singled out Aung. “We are deeply concerned about the recent arrests of peaceful demonstrators in Burma by local authorities. Among those arrested,” they noted, “is Phyoe Phyoe Aung, General Secretary of the All-Burma Federation of Student Unions and a participant in the Bush Institute’s Liberty and Leadership Forum.  She is a passionate advocate for education in Burma. Like Phyoe Phyoe Aung, many of the demonstrators are students working to support Burma’s transition by advocating for a transparent and accountable education system.” 

The Bushes concluded, “Education is vital to the political, economic and social well-being of every nation and people. We hope that those arrested will soon be released.”

The denunciation was notable for being unusual: the former president generally steers clear of remarks on current events, perhaps not missing the censure he received in his eight years as president. But the Bushes have a special tie to Aung. After she was released from her long imprisonment some years ago, she was not allowed to return to college. For this reason, and for her activism, she was selected to participate in the inaugural (2014) class of the Bush Institute’s Liberty and Leadership Forum. 

Yangon was the scene of students' pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988, of which Aung's father was a part. (According to her Institute bio, her father spent 16 years himself as a political prisoner.) Three thousand people were killed then, and the government of Myanmar is particularly sensitive to demonstrations there. 

The region has been an area of longstanding commitment for the Bushes—especially for Laura Bush, who has been especially inspired by the work of the pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi, whom she learned about years ago from a cousin of her husband. In 2007, during President Bush's second term, Peter Baker reported in the Washington Post that Mrs. Bush had “taken a higher-profile leadership role on this in recent weeks than she has on any international issue during nearly seven years in the East Wing. She has lobbied officials and diplomats, issued public statements, given multiple interviews, supported new sanctions against the junta, and written an op-ed column speaking out on behalf of the repressed population in the country that some call Myanmar.”

She fast became the government's leading interlocutor on Burma, discussing the situation by phone with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch said then, “People understand she was speaking not just for herself but for the president. The U.N. hears from the U.S. on 50 different issues a day, but when they hear in this very special way, it has an effect.”

Malinowski continued, “I'm a big critic of her husband on a lot of issues, but I think he cares about this too and they're doing the right thing.” Then: “It is one of the places in the world where it appears that pure good is at war with pure evil. The universe of other problems that the administration faces is far more morally ambiguous. Burma is refreshingly simple.”

Aung's case, too, seems a straightforward one for the former president and first lady to get behind. Elizabeth Hoffman, program manager of the Bush Institute, wrote Thursday that, despite Aung’s “slight stature and soft-spoken nature… when she speaks, people listen. This is rare for such a young woman in a society and culture which is still male-dominated.”

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