/ 25 September 2007

Protests in Burma dominate UN agenda

President George Bush announced new United States sanctions against Burma on Tuesday as world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly focused on rising protests against military rule in the South-East Asian state.

Urging all nations to ”help the Burmese people reclaim their freedom”, Bush imposed financial sanctions and widened a visa ban on members of the military junta.

His call came hours after 10 000 Buddhist monks again defied the ruling generals by marching through Yangon chanting ”democracy, democracy” in the biggest challenge for two decades.

”Americans are outraged by the situation in Burma where a military junta has imposed a 19-year reign of fear,” the US leader told the world body in his annual speech.

In 1989, the military junta officially changed the English version of its name from Burma to Myanmar. Burmese opposition groups continue to use the name ”Burma” since they do not recognise the legitimacy of the ruling military government nor its authority to rename the country.

”The United States will tighten economic sanctions on the leaders of the regime and their financial backers,” Bush said.

The Burmese protests temporarily pushed concern over Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the fight against climate change down the agenda at the UN, as well as conflicts in Darfur, Iraq and the Middle East.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told the assembled kings, presidents and prime ministers the world was closely watching developments in Burma.

”We again urge the authorities in Myanmar to exercise utmost restraint, to engage without delay in dialogue with all the relevant parties to the national reconciliation process on the issues of concern to the people of Myanmar,” Ban told the assembly after private talks with Bush.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown urged the European Union to tighten sanctions against the Burmese government and wrote to Ban calling for ”concerted international action to discourage violence” against the pro-democracy demonstrators.

Meeting on the sidelines of the UN session, EU foreign ministers expressed solidarity in a statement with the people of Burma and ”admiration for the courageous monks, nuns and other citizens who are exercising their rights of peaceful demonstration”, but made no mention of sanctions.

Long-distance duel

Bush was one of the first speakers on a list that included Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad later on Tuesday, the second time the bitter foes have duelled at a distance from the UN rostrum without meeting each other.

Despite the US leading efforts for more UN sanctions against Tehran to curtail its nuclear program, Bush made only a passing reference to Iran in his speech, attacking its human rights record without mentioning the nuclear issue.

White House spokesperson Dana Perino said the fact that Bush only touched on Iran did not mean US concerns about Tehran’s suspected drive to develop nuclear weapons had diminished.

”We talk about Iran constantly,” she said. ”We’re talking about it with our partners to press on those UN Security Council resolutions.”

Ahmadinejad’s blitz of speaking engagements and media interviews captured much of the spotlight from other leaders in New York for the General Assembly. He insisted Iran’s nuclear programme was purely for peaceful purposes.

The US accuses Iran of supporting terrorism and arming insurgents in Iraq. Washington is pushing for a third UN sanctions resolution over Iran’s refusal to halt uranium enrichment, but faces opposition from China and Russia.

Ban and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva also focused in their speeches on the fight against climate change, a day after a UN conference on the issue, which Bush skipped.

Lula said Brazil would step up production of biofuels to help protect the environment and assure food production. Ban called for ”action, action, action” to combat global warming.

Bush, who has rejected binding curbs on greenhouse-gas emissions blamed for heating the planet, barely mentioned the issue in his speech. — Reuters

Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick, Tabassum Zakaria and Patrick Worsnip