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Myanmar needs our help
The United States should work with the United Nations to improve conditions for the Burmese people.
By BOB GRAHAM, former U.S. senator
Published December 12, 2007
Ask an American what he or she knows about the nation of Myanmar, and you are likely to receive a blank stare in return. Most of us know little about the geographically largest country in Southeast Asia.
But that may soon change, and in dramatic fashion. At a time when neighbors like India, Thailand and Vietnam are joining the global community and realizing increased economic growth and political freedom, Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) has not moved beyond the isolation, extreme poverty and human rights abuses that have gripped it for the last half century. This dangerous mix could easily produce an explosive upheaval not seen in Southeast Asia for decades.
In October, I visited Myanmar for the first time. Nearly 20 years ago, the ruling military junta renamed the nation - a designation that Burmese opposition groups and some foreign governments do not recognize.
The signs of trouble were evident from my first bus ride in the nation's largest city, Yangon (formerly called Rangoon). Our tour guide would not discuss everyday living conditions, even though they were clearly demonstrated by the moldy and deteriorating buildings lining the dirt streets of the city.
The guide's reticence was understandable. One month before, Burmese citizens were violently reminded to watch what they say. In September, Buddhist monks led tens of thousands of fellow citizens in protests against the harsh dictatorship. The military's response was devastating. According to one account, thousands of protesters were massacred, their bodies dumped in the jungle. A thousand more were sent to Myanmar's infamous prisons, which are known for torture. Soldiers raided monasteries nationwide. I saw few monks during my visit.
Economic conditions mirror the political deterioration. Sixty years ago, Myanmar was the most literate and prosperous country in Southeast Asia. Today, the per capita annual income is $174, compared to its neighbor Thailand's $3,155. Myanmar has a substantial underground economy which primarily benefits the military leaders. Once referred to as the "Harvard of Southeast Asia," the University of Rangoon is now padlocked. Thousands of school-aged children beg on the streets rather than learn in classrooms.
The Bush administration has not made the situation any easier with several missteps. For example, we have clumsily outsourced our diplomatic responsibilities by encouraging Myanmar's neighbor China to push reform. This request ignores that China's main interest - commerce - depends on the military junta's goodwill. Nor will the monks in prison be reassured to know that we have asked the same Chinese rulers who produced Tiananmen Square and other human rights abuses to advocate for their well-being.
Conversely, though we have recently taken steps to strengthen U.S.-India relations, and India shares a 700-mile border with Myanmar, we have not effectively pushed the Indian government to take a more active role in improving conditions for nearly 50-million people to its west.
Worst of all is the perception that the United States should not even try to succeed diplomatically. Some Burmese reformers have suggested that we use our armed forces to liberate their country just like Iraq. We are seen as a power with no capability other than military might.
The best way for the United States to correct its missteps and change perceptions would be to work with other concerned countries through the United Nations. It was November before U.N. human rights envoy Paulo Sergio Pinhiero was allowed in Myanmar for the first time in four years. He and others are working to establish a genuine national dialogue among ethnic minorities, prodemocracy reformers and the military, and to create space for humanitarian relief agencies to feed the one-third of Burmese children who are malnourished.
The Burmese people are gentle, with an ironic sense of humor. When asked why so many have bad teeth, they say it is because they cannot open their mouths. The international community has an obligation to free the Burmese to flex their jaws - and improve their lives.