Burma And The Presidential Field

10/04/2007 09:27 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The following piece was produced by the Huffington Post's OffTheBus project.

The uprising and subsequent military crackdown in Burma is one of the few issues on which Republicans and Democrats can agree wholeheartedly, and yet they also seem to concur that voters would rather hear about something else.

Perhaps something a little more controversial.

Senators Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Joe Biden and John McCain have all come out in full support of extending U.S. sanctions against the ruling Burmese junta.

Jeremy Woodrum of U.S. Campaign for Burma says Clinton has supported every measure and initiative trying to end the crackdown in Burma (renamed Myanmar by the junta). "She's done everything in a heartbeat without hesitation," he told me.

McCain has brought up Burma while on the campaign trail, calling the generals who run Burma "military thugs."

McCain spokesperson Brook Buchanan said: "He talks about it at every stop - this is a very important issue to him."

It's pretty difficult not to support monks and protesters who are peacefully taking to the streets to demand an end to a repressive regime.

The Burmese people have been under military rule since 1962. It's hard not to sympathize, especially as we get glimpses of photographs and video clips that have been flying around the Web of soldiers beating up protesters with their batons. One series of photos showed a dead monk floating in a creek, his maroon robe bunched up around his neck and his body covered in mud and seaweed.

Burma has 70,000 child soldiers, more than any other country. Its health care system is the second worst in the world, ranking just above Sierra Leone. The junta commits forced labor, burns down thousands of villages in Eastern Burma and uses rape as a systematic weapon of war and oppression against its ethnic minorities.

And now, it has killed about 150 people and detained between 3,000 and 6,000 for peacefully protesting, depending on the account. Soldiers have been searching homes at night, arresting anyone they suspect was involved in - or even watched - the demonstrations.

And yet, if this is such a black and white issue, one has to wonder why more of the presidential candidates aren't denouncing the junta and its atrocious record of human rights every chance they can. With the exception of McCain, it is difficult finding any articles quoting them on the issue.

And I see no mention of the current crisis in Burma on campaign websites of any of the candidates. I searched the sites of McCain, Clinton, Obama, Edwards, Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd, Mike Gravel, Dennis Kucinich, Sam Brownback, Duncan Hunter, Ron Paul, Tom Tancredo, Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson and Mike Huckabee.

George and Laura Bush have done significantly more, and they aren't running for office. (Turns out, just because Bush supports something, doesn't mean it's bad.)

The candidates should be using their influence to educate and incite Americans to take action.

Maybe Burma isn't getting its fair share of shout-outs precisely because it is a black and white issue. Candidates and voters seem to relish controversy. Nothing like Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaking at Columbia to get Americans raising hell.

Issues like universal health care and gay marriage get play while something we all agree on - the utter depravity of beating, torturing and killing monks and demonstrators peacefully protesting a totalitarian regime - gets put on the back burner.

It's starting to not get any burner. Burma is already disappearing from the pages of newspapers. I knew that would happen, but it is crushing to see it happening so fast.

Woodrum says he thinks the candidates have done a good job on Burma. "Our battle is not in the U.S.," he said. "We are the only country in the world who has done anything concrete."

He thinks we should direct our wrath at China and U.N. special envoy Ibrahim Gambari.

Woodrum has a fair point. China seems to enjoy vetoing U.N. Security Council resolutions against dictatorships, and Gambari has proved practically useless. While he was in Burma posing for photo ops with the junta's top generals, soldiers were rounding up and arresting more monks and civilians.

But the candidates should not get off so easily. If they don't rouse Americans to action, to express their outrage at the junta like we did at the South African government during apartheid, who will? We should not be leaving foreign policy campaigns to celebrities. We should demand of our candidates not just platitudes about peace and democracy, but concrete answers. And so I ask you, presidential candidates:

What will you do about Burma?

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