WASHINGTON – Activists opposing the military-run junta will lose a powerful ally in January when first lady Laura Bush moves out of the White House.
Voter dissatisfaction with President George W. Bush's Republican Party could also cost them Myanmar's fiercest congressional critic in Mitch McConnell. The Senate's top Republican is battling to retain his seat in the face of Democrats intent on bolstering their control of Congress with a strong showing in Tuesday's elections.
Laura Bush and McConnell — who heads the panel responsible for financing international programs — have used their high profiles to draw attention to human rights abuses in Myanmar and the 13-year detention of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. They also have won tough sanctions aimed at isolating Myanmar, also known as Burma.
Activists in the country say her support has been invaluable.
"The world takes an interest in Myanmar's ethnic issues because of her," said Han Tha Myint, a spokesman for Myanmar's opposition National League for Democracy. "It is moral support for us even though we are not clear how much of the support can translate into change."
Despite the praise, it is questionable whether their efforts have significantly helped Myanmar's democracy movement. The generals remain firmly in power, and Suu Kyi appears no closer to freedom.
David Steinberg, a Myanmar specialist at Georgetown University, said Laura Bush and McConnell's efforts have, in fact, stymied consideration of fresh approaches to Myanmar.
While some in the State Department and Congress are dissatisfied with U.S. policy, "doing anything to change it would be politically unacceptable," Steinberg said, adding that McConnel has resisted others' efforts to deviate from the policy agenda he favors.
"There's no benefit to you, and there's likely to be political harm," he said.
Derek Mitchell, an Asia adviser at the Defense Department during former President Bill Clinton's administration, said it is often difficult to galvanize U.S. officials to focus on a particular issue.
"What (Laura Bush) was able to do was to force the bureaucracy to pay attention to Burma," said Mitchell, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Myanmar gained attention in the U.S. and worldwide last year because of the junta's violent suppression of thousands of protesters. The country, which has been under military rule since 1962, was then hit by a devastating cyclone in May — a disaster made worse by the junta's preventing foreign aid workers from helping.
Laura Bush, a former teacher and librarian, has brought the issue to the attention of many Americans, while also casting a spotlight on it abroad.
During a recent trip to Asia, she met with refugees on the Thai border with Myanmar and prodded China, which has large economic interests in Myanmar, "to do what other countries have done — to sanction, to put a financial squeeze on the Burmese generals."
While Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has spoken out on Myanmar, dubbing the country one of six "outposts of tyranny, analysts say the first lady's focus on Myanmar also adds a measure of heartfelt sincerity to the calls for reform.
Laura Bush is not active in foreign policy, so, when she speaks out on Burma, people listen. When Condi Rice speaks out on Burma, it's just another statement from the secretary of state," said Priscilla Clapp, chief U.S. diplomat in Myanmar from 1999 to 2002.
U.S. politicians often adopt causes that appeal to the ethnicity or interests of the voters in their home states. But McConnell, who is from the largely rural state of Kentucky, for many years used his influence to keep Myanmar high the State Department and White House's agendas during times when it received little public attention.
He is now in a tough fight for his job. A recent poll indicated he was slightly ahead of Democrat Bruce Lunsford in a race into which national Democrats have been pouring time and money.
Senior members of both political parties in Congress probably will continue to support strong sanctions against Myanmar.
If Republican presidential candidate John McCain should upset Democrat Barack Obama, it would be possible that his wife, Cindy, also could take up the issue. Cindy McCain, during a June trip to Vietnam, criticized Myanmar's leaders and vowed to make improving human rights there a priority should she became first lady.
Obama supports U.S. trade and investment sanctions "to demonstrate our strong, principled condemnation of the regime's oppressive rule and our solidarity with the Burmese people," according to his Web site.
Steinberg, the Georgetown professor, holds out hope for "some quiet consideration of the issue" in the next administration. But, he said, it would take a dramatic gesture from Myanmar's generals — releasing Suu Kyi from house arrest, for example — to provide enough "political cover" for an administration to change Myanmar policy.
It is a sentiment shared by some activists in Myanmar.
"I believe that the new administration will not differ in the policies towards Myanmar," said the NLD's Han Tha Myint. "America is a staunch supporter of Myanmar's democracy struggle and the new administration is unlikely to change its policies."