The cries of tens of thousands of people led by Buddhist monks, who are staging anti-junta protest rallies in Myanmar at the risk of a government crackdown, has reached the ears of the US President George W. Bush, who is expected to take up the issue in his speech Tuesday to the General Assembly and urge the U.N. to uphold its pledge to fight for freedom and impose new sanctions against the repressive military regime in Myanmar.
According to US government officials, Bush will avoid giving any attention to the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is in New York, though he is expected to cite Iran in a list of countries where people lack freedom and live in fear.
On Monday, Myanmar's military government issued a threat of mass arrest and torture to the barefoot Buddhist monks who led 100,000 people marching through a major city. It was the biggest pro-democracy demonstrations in almost 20 years.
According to White House spokesman Dana Perino, Bush's speech is about "upholding the promise of the U.N. founding" and, leaning heavily on the U.N.'s Declaration of Human Rights, approved more than 50 years ago, he will remind the Assembly to uphold its original goal of ensuring freedom in many forms - from tyranny, disease, illiteracy and poverty.
"His [Bush] aim is to remind the body that the expansion of freedom is not a Western goal, nor even just a Bush doctrine, but rather one that underpins the U.N. itself," Perino said.
While urging sanctions, Bush will outline restrictions on visas and financial transactions for "key members of the regime and those that provide financial support to them," National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said as the President traveled to New York. In 2003, the U.S. and Western allies imposed a first set of sanctions on Myanmar, banning imports and freezing assets of government officials.
Bush will call for the United Nations and governments around the world "to do all they can to support a process of political change in Burma," Hadley said.
However, Hadley declined to spell out further details, arguing that he needed to preserve "a little element of surprise" so that those targeted "don't, quite frankly, hide their assets before the sanctions come into force."
"So we're going to be a little bit, intentionally a little vague on what is intended, so that they will have their intended effect," said Hadley, who suggested that some of Washington's allies and partners would join the effort.
"I think you're going to see a number of countries speak out, and I think there has been an increasing awareness about the viciousness of this regime and the opportunity that we might have actually to get a transition," he said.
Noting the Buddhist monks' role, Hadley said the US administration hoped to combine internal and external pressure "to try and force the regime into a change," leading to the release of political prisoners and an evolution toward democracy.
"It's very interesting what is happening in the country with the Buddhist monks who have joined this effort. So I think you're going to see a number of countries joining in this effort. There's a real opportunity here," Hadley said.
"Our hope is to marry that internal pressure with some external pressure - coming from the United States, the United Nations, and really all countries committed to freedom," Hadley said.
He said the sanctions would "try and force the regime into a change, and one that ... will release all political prisoners and permit an evolution towards democracy and freedom in Burma."
On September 23, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described the Myanmar military junta's abuse of civil rights as brutal.
"The Burmese people deserve better. They deserve a life to be able to live in freedom," Rice said at a joint news conference with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi. China and Russia, which have economic interests in Myanmar, in January vetoed a U.S.-sponsored resolution at the United Nations Security Council calling on the junta to hold talks with the opposition.
"The brutality of this regime is well known. And so we will be speaking about that, and I think the president will be speaking about it with many of his colleagues," Rice said, adding that President Bush would raise the issue with fellow world leaders during this week's conference at the U.N.
"The international community's got to stand up much more than it has," Rice said. "I think what the Burmese junta is doing is just a reminder of how really brutal this regime is."
In Washington, State Department spokesman Tom Casey today urged the regime to engage in "a real, honest, open political process" with opponents.
The U.S., which already limits investment in Myanmar and restricts financial transactions, has joined other governments in calling on Myanmar's government to show restraint in dealing with the protests.
While the U.K., Germany and France has backed opposition protests led by the Buddhist monks that are attracting as many as 100,000 anti-government demonstrators, the European Union (EU) has called for "real political reform" in Myanmar and has urged Myanmar's leaders to "exercise utmost restraint in handling demonstrations."
"The junta will be held responsible by the international community for the safety of the protesters," France's Foreign Ministry said in a statement, adding that the size of the protests "underline the discontent of the Burmese people."
"Nothing like this has been seen for two decades or more," said Bloomberg quoted Mark Canning, U.K. ambassador to Myanmar, as saying in a telephone interview from Yangon.
However, "Translating this into positive political change will be difficult," Canning said.
The Canadian government has also called on the Burma government to open talks with opposition leaders.
"This past week, thousands of protesters took to the streets across Burma to protest against the Burmese regime," the country's top diplomat, Maxime Bernier, said in a statement.
"Canada notes the actions of these peaceful protesters and calls upon the Burmese regime to engage in a genuine dialogue with members of the democratic opposition," Bernier said.
Two of Myanmar's south-east Asian neighbors Singapore and Philippines - also urged the regime to show restraint, resolve the crisis in a "peaceful manner" and take steps to usher in democracy.
Earlier, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a statement saying he is "committed to continue" promoting the restoration of democracy in Myanmar. In a statement, the Secretary-General said that he "commends the peaceful approach the demonstrators are using to press their interests and he calls upon the (Burmese) authorities to continue to exercise restraint."
Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, has been under international sanctions since 1990 when the army rejected the results of elections won by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy. Demonstrations have intensified since the doubling of some fuel prices last month.
Suu Kyi, 61, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990, has spent 11 years in detention since the 1990 elections and was last placed under arrest at her home in 2003.
Myanmar's government, which has been run by the army since 1962, has ignored previous demands by the US and the U.N. to free more than 1,000 political prisoners and return the country of 47 million people to democracy.
"People are scared but if the government is not willing to compromise...with us, with the politicians or with the people itself, then there's no other options," said Win Naing, of the Burmese Democracy campaign.
"The regime, they control absolutely everything, they can do anything they want at any time," said Zoya Phan of the Burma Campaign UK.
According to witnesses, there are no signs of government crackdown yet.
"The streets are lined with people clapping and cheering them on," a witness said. There were no signs of soldiers around the Sule pagoda in downtown Yangon, the destination of a week of marches by the deeply revered maroon-robed monks.
"The people are not afraid," another witness said. "They are helping the monks and offering them drinking water."
Some even waved the bright red "fighting peacock" flag, emblem of the student unions that spearheaded a mass uprising in the former Burma in 1988, a rebellion crushed by the army with the loss of an estimated 3,000 lives.
But the junta, one of the world's most isolated regimes, has seldom listened to the opinions of others.
"The regime has a long history of violent reactions to peaceful demonstrations," Gareth Evans, head of the International Crisis Group think-tank, said in a statement.
"If serious loss of life is to be averted, those U.N. members with influence over the government are going to have to come together fast," he said in a reference to China, Russia and India.
While Russia and India are yet to speak out on the issue, China, Myanmar's strongest ally, has already said that as "a friendly neighboring country of Myanmar, China hopes to see stability and economic development."
However, "China adopts a policy of non-interference in the affairs of other countries," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told reporters at a briefing in Beijing.
U.N. special envoy Ibrahim Gambari said he was praying the army generals opted for compromise and dialogue with the monks and opposition party of detained democracy icon and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi rather than sending in the troops.
"For the sake of the people of Myanmar, for the sake of neighboring countries and for the sake of Myanmar's place in the world, we certainly hope that the same reaction that took place in 1988 will not be the case now," he told CNN.