BANGKOK, Thailand – With all eyes on Beijing, President Bush bluntly told China that America is strongly opposed to the way the communist government represses its people, a rebuke delivered from the heart of Asia on the cusp of the Olympic Games.
In perhaps his last major address in Asia, Bush said that America speaks out for a free press, free assembly and labor rights not to antagonize China's leaders, but because it's the only path the potent U.S. rival can take to reach its full potential.
"America stands in firm opposition to China's detention of political dissidents and human rights advocates and religious activists," Bush said.
"We press for openness and justice not to impose our beliefs, but to allow the Chinese people to express theirs."
Along with his chiding, Bush offered praise for China's market reforms and hope that it will embrace freedom, reflecting the delicate balance that the president seeks to strike with the potent U.S. rival.
"Change in China will arrive on its own terms and in keeping with its own history and its own traditions. Yet change will arrive," he said.
Bush's brought his message to Thailand, a turbulent democracy. The marquee speech of his three-country trip hailed deepening ties between the U.S. and Asia. He pledged that whoever follows him in the White House will inherit an alliance that is now stronger than ever.
The president planned to quickly pivot from his speech to a full day of outreach toward the people of Myanmar, also known as Burma, who live under military rule across the border.
Yet heading eagerly on Thursday to the Beijing Olympics himself as a sports fan, Bush faced pressures all around: a desire not to embarrass China in its moment of glory, a call for strong words by those dismayed by China's repression, and a determination to remind the world that he has been pushing China to allow greater freedom during his presidency.
But his message will surely be noted in China, which has already knocked Bush for intruding in its affairs by hosting Chinese dissidents at the White House ahead of the games.
"The leadership in Beijing will almost certainly find his comments irritating or objectionable," said Sophie Richardson, the Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. "But they will clearly understand that the United States will not impose any real consequences if they do not make progress on human rights."
Seeking an event scrubbed free of protest, China has rounded up opponents and slapped restrictions on journalists, betraying promises made when China landed the hosting rights.
Bush says he built a relationship with China's leaders that has built up honesty and candor and allowed him to have more influence. He cited examples of significant alliance over Taiwan, North Korea's nuclear program and shared economic concerns. He has also been adamant that the Olympics is not a time to pursue the U.S. political agenda.
Given his setting, Bush devoted a surprisingly small portion of his speech to Myanmar.
One of the world's poorest countries, Myanmar has been under military rule since 1962, when the latest junta came to power after brutally crushing a pro-democracy uprising in 1988. Mass street demonstrations, led by Buddhist monks, were again put down last September.
"Together, we seek an end to tyranny in Burma," Bush said. "The noble cause has many devoted champions, and I happen to be married to one of them."
First lady Laura Bush, an outspoken advocate for Myanmar, visited a border refugee camp in Mae La, home to thousands of people who fled Myanmar's violence. Mrs. Bush flew to the Thai-Myanmar border to spend the day at the Mae La camp and a health clinic run by a woman known as the "Mother Teresa of Burma." Mae La is home to 38,000 Karen, an ethnic minority that human rights organizations say is the target of an ongoing Myanmar military campaign marked by murders of civilians, rapes and razing of villages.
After his speech, Bush left the skyscrapers of downtown Bangkok and headed into the city's slums to visit Mercy Centre, a safe haven for more than 4,000 toddlers. The center has a shelter for street children, four orphanages, a hospice and a home for mothers and children with AIDS.
"Thank you for greeting me," Bush told the children who greeted him in a courtyard with drum music.
Some were shy in his presence, so Bush prodded them to pose with him for a photograph. He also visited a room decorated with bright children's artwork. He sat with the children, grabbed a green pencil and started coloring on one boy's picture, then autographed others. The children clasped their hands and bowed in a sign of thanks.
After the light moments with the children, Bush shifted to a more somber matter. At the U.S. ambassador's residence, he was briefed on recovery efforts from a cyclone that killed more than 80,000 people in May in neighboring Myanmar. The military junta there has been criticized for its slow response to the storm. He was to have lunch with activists in Myanmar, also known as Burma.
Bush heralds Thailand's democracy as alive and well, but it is deeply embattled.
Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej's 6-month-old coalition government came to power in elections, but only after a bloodless coup against predecessor Thaksin Shinawatra.
Samak faces daily demonstrations demanding his resignation. He is accused of blocking corruption charges against Thaksin and trying to amend the constitution to cling onto power.
Though Samak regards himself as a friend of Myanmar's generals, Bush heaped praise on his Thai hosts when he arrived, calling them close allies in the war on terror.
About 25 people around the convention center where Bush spoke welcomed Bush. But a Muslim group shouted "Bush, get out. God is great" as the presidential motorcade passed. The protesters handed out leaflets saying "George Bush is a war criminal."
"We are here to protest Bush's policy on the so-called war on terror in Iraq and Afghanistan. People are dying there every day," said Jiraoj Mahmud Kuo, a 28-year-old protester.