WASHINGTON - President Bush signed legislation yesterday to punish Burma's brutal ruling regime by freezing assets of political and military leaders there and banning the importation of rubies and jade from that country into the United States.
The military junta in Burma has been getting more attention at the White House, particularly since the government's slow response to a cyclone in May that killed more than 80,000, devastated infrastructure, and left many in perilous straits. The administration blames a corrupt regime for failing to help citizens during the disaster, in large part by not accepting help from other countries, and for violently suppressing democracy demonstrations by Buddhist monks in last September's so-called Saffron Revolution.
Laura Bush has become the administration's highest-profile spokeswoman on the issue, and accompanied her husband in the Oval Office as he signed the bills, which extend and harden sanctions Congress first passed in 2003. Bush also signed an extension of standing US sanctions that must be renewed annually.
"On the Burmese regime, our message is: The United States believes in democracy and freedom," the president said. Laura Bush did not speak. A few key members of Congress who attended the signing also were silent.
Burma has been under military rule since 1962. The current junta took power in 1988 after crushing prodemocracy demonstrations at a cost of an estimated 3,000 lives.
Burma produces up to 90 percent of the world's rubies and is a top supplier of other gems and jade. The trade provides crucial revenue for the military regime, with many merchants coming from China and Hong Kong.
The hope is that the legislation signed by Bush would put enough financial pressure on the junta to encourage a change to a democratic civilian government.
The bill bans Burmese gem imports, something that already is the voluntary policy of retailers such as Tiffany's and Bulgari. US officials say Burma has been evading earlier gem-targeting sanctions by laundering the stones in other countries before they are shipped to the United States.