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VOA correspondent Paula Wolfson interviewed First Lady Laura Bush in New York on the topics of Burma and Afghanistan. Following is the full text of the interview:
WOLFSON: Mrs. Bush, thank you for setting some time aside to talk to us about an issue that I know is very near and dear to your heart, that you have championed, and that's the plight of the people of Burma. We're here at a time when really the eyes of the world are on Burma.
MRS. BUSH: That's right, and that's what I hope the people of Burma know -- how much people, especially in the United States, are watching the events that are unfolding there. There have been photographs of the protests on the front page of our major newspapers. Every newspaper in the United States, many of them, have also had op-ed pieces on their editorial pages. I hope that the people of Burma know that the world does stand with them and that we are watching them. And I hope that the ruling generals know that, too, that any sort of violence or suppression of these peaceful protests will be deplored by the world.
WOLFSON: Well, today we had the first hints that they might push back, that there might be some violence -- some tear-gassing, some arrests. Do you fear for the people of Burma?
MRS. BUSH: I do, I'm very concerned. I pray for the people of Burma. I'm awed by their courage. These last protests that have been peaceful, as we know the people of Burma are -- the people of Burma are peaceful people, we know that. We know that the democracy champions there want a peaceful reconciliation, a way to work with the ruling generals to build the democracy they want, to build their economy again. Burma was known for being a very wealthy country, rich in natural resources. And now the economy is in shambles after so many years of this military rule.
WOLFSON: This morning, when we woke up here in New York, we saw some new images. You talked about the images of the peaceful protest. Today we saw the images, the first grainy, blurry images of some of the violence that's starting to occur. Do you think that these images -- now that Americans and the West are really seeing it, I think they're really starting in large numbers to pay attention -- that this might galvanize support here in the U.S. for what's going on in Burma?
MRS. BUSH: Yes, definitely. I think there's a lot of support. Obviously we hear it out of the United States Congress. Already members of Congress have put out statements urging the generals not to resort to violence, saying in those statements that they're inspired by the courage of the protesters. Earlier this summer, I stood with every member -- every female member of the United States Senate, both Republicans and Democrats -- as they also urged the military regime to have a peaceful reconciliation with all the people -- the people of Burma who only want their government to recognize the problems that they're having and to start to work with them on a real dialogue of peaceful reconciliation.
WOLFSON: Does it surprise you that it was the monks and the nuns, these revered religious figures in Burma, who have really taken the lead now?
MRS. BUSH: Well, I think they are the ones who can take the lead, because they are revered, and because they're known -- Buddhist monks are known for peace, for wanting peace. And so I think it's very, very important. Their addition to the other protests have made a huge difference, and one of the reasons I think the world is paying a lot of attention.
WOLFSON: The images, these images we keep talking about that are coming out of Burma, the monks and the nuns in the streets, and the lay people just forming human chains around them for their protection -- what goes through your mind when you see an image like that?
MRS. BUSH: Well, I love that image. I think -- I love the idea of people holding hands to protect this cordon --
WOLFSON: Almost dancing around --
MRS. BUSH: Exactly, to protect the monks standing on the edge of the crowd. And the other image that was so moving to me, that I saw a tiny picture of, was the picture of Aung San Suu Kyi when she was able to come to the gate of her home where she's under house arrest and see the monks there, who had been, fortunately, allowed to go in to see her. And I was so moved by that photograph of her.
WOLFSON: Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. Are you surprised, just what you see in traveling around the world and meeting with women in various countries, that it's a woman who's leading the pro-democracy movement in Burma?
MRS. BUSH: Well, no, not really, not at all. I mean, one of the reasons I even became interested in Burma is because I learned about her and read her book, "Freedom from Fear", and learned about her story and her courage and her sacrifice, not even being able to say good-bye to her husband as he was dying from cancer because he was not allowed into Burma and she was afraid to leave because she knew she'd never be allowed back.
All this long time, off and on, of the last 18 years, being under house arrest, being in some sort of detention -- all of that really shows the sacrifice that she's making for the people of Burma and the hopes that she has and the dreams that she has to have a free and democratic Burma that can join the rest of the world and can flourish with all the resources that Burma has.
WOLFSON: Mrs. Bush, First Ladies have a habit of taking up causes. Most often they're domestic in nature -- literacy, which is yours -- your mother-in-law, when she was the First Lady, was one of them.
MRS. BUSH: That's right.
WOLFSON: Lady Bird Johnson, who recently passed away, and highway beautification and planting flowers all over the country in America, and Washington, D.C., with all our flowers --
MRS. BUSH: That's right.
WOLFSON: -- owes her a lot of debt. But what was it actually that sparked your interest about Burma? Rather unusual for a First Lady to champion a cause overseas. You talked about Aung San Suu Kyi's book and her story. But there's a personal connection here for you, isn't there?
MRS. BUSH: Well, I have a cousin who is an active Burmese advocate -- she's not Burmese, but obviously an advocate for Burma and the Burmese, and she also got me interested.
But what really started it all was right after September 11th, when we looked into Afghanistan and saw the plight of women there. I was struck by, like many American women were, the idea of women being forbidden to be educated, not to even be able to leave the house unless they have a male escort, not being able to work.
All of the things that we saw in Afghanistan made me then move on to look at other countries around the world, and particularly at the way women are treated in some of these countries. I know that countries can't succeed unless everyone, both men and women, have a chance to contribute to their societies.
And then slowly, I became interested in Aung San Suu Kyi after that, and then in the plight of the Burmese people.
WOLFSON: There are signs right now of tension; there are fears. We've talked about those.
MRS. BUSH: That's right.
WOLFSON: Are there also signs of hope? Let's go back to the images, okay? The images -- old images of people in Germany, the former East Germany dancing on the Berlin Wall; of freedom movements, in the Philippines and Indonesia, a little bit closer to Burma. Is there hope for Burma?
MRS. BUSH: There is hope; absolutely there's hope for Burma. And I think that is one of the feelings that we all get as we look at these images, this very cautious hope that this time the people have turned a page and have said, we're not going to stay oppressed and we're going to move on. And the people on the street, the Buddhist monks who have led the protests, along with all of the people from every walk of life -- business people, students -- who have also come out.
And at this time, I want to say to the armed guards and to the soldiers: Don't fire on your people. Don't fire on your neighbors. Join this movement so that Burma can join the rest of the world and become the democracy that so many people in Burma -- in fact, the National League of Democracy party was overwhelmingly elected in the 1990 elections, and then that was suppressed by the ruling military regime.
So I hope -- there is certainly cautious optimism. I'm also obviously very concerned for the safety of the protesters and the people of Burma. I want them to know we're praying for them.
WOLFSON: There is a government there that has been so unpredictable. And how do you pressure a government like that if they don't seem to care how people think about them abroad?
MRS. BUSH: Well, they don't seem to care, certainly, and they are very, very isolated, even moving the capital to -- in the middle of -- far away from Rangoon, in the middle of a jungle, sort of, so that it's very difficult to get to. And I think that shows part of their isolation, and certainly gives the message that they're not interested in what the broader world thinks about them or their country.
But I do think their neighbors can press them -- China and India particularly can have a very important role. We hear, but it's not substantiated, that China is urging the regime not to react in a brutal and violent way against the protesters. I hope that's the case. I hope that both China and India, who have sway with Than Shwe and with the other generals because of their trade and their economic partnerships, will also speak out and urge the generals to now really start, like it happened in South Africa at the end of apartheid, to reconcile, to build a democracy, to free the political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, and give their country a chance to build.
All these years have been wasted since 1990. The economy has gotten worse and worse. And in a country that produces so much oil and gas, it's really terrible that their own citizens have had their prices of fuel doubled since August 19th. And that's what really precipitated these protests. But I think that is also when people said, enough is enough, and started to protest.
WOLFSON: It just evolved from there.
MRS. BUSH: From that.
WOLFSON: If there is violence, and even if there isn't, if there is change in Burma, by the gun or by peaceful means, will the world be willing and able, given all the other crises in the world, to step in and help? Because we have health conditions there, education --
MRS. BUSH: That's right, and even many international health groups that are NGOs are not in Burma because either they are frustrated by not being able to reach the people they need to reach because the regime doesn't let them, or they can't get a real dialogue with the regime. The International Red Cross came out, which was very unusual for them -- they very seldom come out and make statements -- but they came out and said that the situation in Burma with the regime was intolerable. And they haven't been able to deliver help. The Global Fund on AIDS and Malaria and Tuberculosis also has had a very difficult time getting in to deliver the aid to people that need it in Burma.
But yes, I think that every international organization like those -- the World Food Program -- all of them, if they are allowed to, will immediately go into Burma with as much aid as they possibly can bring in there.
Is it going to be easy now for the Burmese to build their economy at the end of this long decline? No, of course not. The hard work will begin if there is reconciliation, and they can start to build their country. It will be very difficult. But do I think the Burmese can do it? Absolutely. We have -- I have great respect for the people of Burma. I know they're peaceful; I know they're intellectual; I know they prize education. And they're hard-working. And can they build their country again? Sure, absolutely. And I know that many, many governments and organizations would help.
WOLFSON: And in short, you have hope.
MRS. BUSH: I have hope. I have very cautious hope. But I hope that the page is turned, and that they have moved on and realized it's time to stop the regime. I want to encourage the generals to start the reconciliation, move aside, and let a democracy build.
WOLFSON: Mrs. Bush, thank you very much for talking with us live.
MRS. BUSH: Thanks so much. Thanks a lot.
WOLFSON: We are sitting just a few blocks from the United Nations, where a lot of action yesterday --
MRS. BUSH: That's right.
WOLFSON: -- on what's happening in Burma. Were you pleased -- good news?
MRS. BUSH: Yes, I think so. President Bush, as you know, during his speech, announced further sanctions against the ruling members of the military, including visa bans for them and their family members. I know that he has spoken to many leaders who are here, starting at the APEC meeting in Australia with Secretary Rice. They spoke to a number of the Asian countries that were there about Burma, about putting pressure on the regime.
And then, of course, on this trip in New York at the United Nations General Assembly, he's had to speak -- had the chance to speak with a number of people, including the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon. And as you know, Ban Ki-moon mentioned Burma also in his speech yesterday. He has urged Gambari, the special envoy, to get into Burma as soon as possible so that the U.N. will know what's really going on.
And of course, we want and hope for a U.N. resolution. Both China and Russia, as you know, vetoed last year. But I hope this year they'll join the rest of the countries. The EU has spoken out about Burma. A lot of other countries have. And so the President will continue to talk to leaders from each of these countries, especially ASEAN and other Asian countries that can have some profound influence on the Burmese military rulers.
WOLFSON: Okay, let me shift gears a little bit -- another part of the world, another part of the world that's in trouble. Well, you and I, we share something -- we share a love of books. We've talked about this before over lunch. We have a shared passion for a book called "The Kite Runner", which was set in Afghanistan. It's a wonderful novel about two boys who grow up, and their lives reflect the turmoil of their country.
You've recently been there, to Afghanistan. You told me it holds a special place in your heart. And recently when we sat down at this luncheon with all the other women who cover the White House, we asked you to describe the most memorable event of your tenure as First Lady. And you didn't skip a beat. You said it was Afghanistan; it was cutting the ribbon at the American University.
MRS. BUSH: That's right, the new American University that's being built there. And President Bush and I just had a showing of "The Kite Runner", the movie, which will be released, I think, in November at the White House theater. Khaled Hosseini, the author, was there with us, as well as a number of people from the U.S. State Department, who are directly responsible for working with Afghanistan. The Ambassador from Afghanistan and his wife were with us, as well. And then we asked the Ambassadors from the Netherlands and Canada, both countries who have joined us in Afghanistan, in the rebuilding of Afghanistan.
But one of the people there is the new President of the American University in Afghanistan, Dr. Stauffer. And he said to me -- and I would have never thought of this -- but he said, you have a great legacy because you were there when this University was founded, when we announced that we were going to build this American University in Kabul. And it made me feel great, of course. I was really thrilled about that.
But I also hoped that the people of Afghanistan know that American people are standing with them. All of these recent terrorist bombings with the Taliban are very worrisome to the people of the United States. I know the people of Afghanistan want to build their country, reject violence, and be able to live a normal life after these years of war that they've had.
WOLFSON: How much of Afghanistan's future depends not on guns but on schools? And what are the opportunities for education in a country which is still, as we said, under such turmoil?
MRS. BUSH: Well, can you imagine how they were just a mere six years ago, where girls weren't allowed to go to school, where women who might run a secret school in their basement ran a huge risk and could've been arrested or jailed for doing that? And now, fortunately, schools are opening up all over Afghanistan. A huge number of young people are in school. Adults who missed learning to read, because of the -- growing up during the years of the Taliban, are also now urging people to start literacy classes for adults so they can join in.
An economy cannot thrive if half of its people are totally denied any part in it. And so also the economy of Afghanistan can build once women can also have a chance to contribute. And I see that now with companies that women are starting. I met with a group of Afghan businesswomen who were in the United States being mentored by somebody who was in the same business as they are starting. I met with them just a couple of weeks ago at the White House. And that's very, very encouraging.
WOLFSON: Health care. They're having such problems with it. Infant mortality has been so high in Afghanistan....
MRS. BUSH: Highest infant and maternal mortality in the world -- Afghanistan had. But that rate is decreasing, which is really good news, because as people are educated about health, and as these health centers open, women who are educated are more likely to have healthy babies and less likely to have problems; or, if they start to have problems, know to seek help from a health care worker quickly.
WOLFSON: So education is the first step for these women. From there it just grows.
MRS. BUSH: That's right.
WOLFSON: And it builds and it goes into other fields, as well. What about the problems they are now having with HIV/AIDS in Afghanistan? There's such a social taboo about that.
MRS. BUSH: Well, that's true worldwide. I mean, there's still a huge stigma in many parts of Africa, as well. People don't get tested because they are afraid to even know if they are HIV positive. But now we have these antiretrovirals. So a positive test -- a positive HIV test is not the death sentence it was. It's very important for people to be tested, and this is true in the United States, as well, so that you know what your HIV status is and you can protect your loved ones.
So I hope that message also gets into Afghanistan. If you are HIV positive, there are antiretrovirals you can go on, and live a very healthy life.
WOLFSON: You've kept a close watch on the fate of the Afghan women since the fall of the Taleban. How far have they come and what's the biggest challenge they face?
MRS. BUSH: Well, the biggest challenge, of course, still, I think, is the whole idea that women are not equal. That's not only a challenge in Afghanistan, that's a challenge in many other parts of the world, as well. But getting an education. As soon as people can be educated, they should be.
We have a wonderful teacher recruitment and training project at the Afghanistan Teacher Training Institute, which I also visited when I went to Afghanistan. The Institute provides a safe dorm so women who come in from the provinces have a safe place to live while they're being trained to be teachers. Then they can go back home, open community schools, and train other teachers, in a cascading effect, with the idea of getting as many schools open as quickly as possible all over Afghanistan.
That's been successful. I think over 400 teachers have been trained. No telling how many people they've trained as they've gone back into their own communities.
WOLFSON: How much is Afghanistan's future tied to the fate of its women, if they rise up?
MRS. BUSH: Well, if they rise up, the whole economy can rise up. I mean, that's what we find out. If women are successful, then the whole economy and the whole country can be successful, because women are the ones at home with the children. If women are educated, they're much more likely to be an advocate for their child's education. They're much more likely to have healthy children because they can read a medicine bottle; they know what warning signs are; they can get their child to a health care provider if they know what the symptoms of certain diseases are. So women can really lift a country.
And we can tell, from the way Afghanistan was during the Taleban, that the denial of rights to women really decreases a country's chance of success.
WOLFSON: So they've got a long way to go, but they can be a spark that moves the country forward.
MRS. BUSH: That's right. And they are already. I get to meet groups of teachers from Afghanistan who are training here at the University of Nebraska, and stop at the White House on their way back home. I get to meet with these businesswomen from Afghanistan. I've met women judges from Afghanistan. I've met with women cabinet members and a governor from Afghanistan -- woman. And that's very encouraging to me. Women can really be the key to Afghanistan's success.
WOLFSON: And we will leave it right there.
MRS. BUSH: Okay. Thanks so much, Paula.
WOLFSON: Thank you very much, Mrs. Bush.