It was an activist’s dream come true: an unexpected call to the White House, a private audience with the president, an opportunity to influence U.S. policy, maybe even alter the course of world events.
For Charm Tong, it happened two weeks ago. For about an hour, President Bush listened as the 24-year-old refugee told the story of her life as a Burmese exile in Thailand -- and as she described the systematic abuse of ethnic minority women by the military regime in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.
“The president was very interested in what is going on inside the country, to the people, to the women, how rape is used as a weapon of war,” Charm Tong later told a reporter, as she unwound on a park bench not far from the White House. “He asked many questions.”
Among them, she said, was the biggest question of all: What could the United States do to help? She urged Bush to use his trip this week to Asia to persuade other countries, particularly Japan, to bring more pressure to bear on the military dictatorship in Rangoon.
Bush leaves Monday for Japan, China, Mongolia and South Korea, where he will attend an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting. “He said he would raise the issue with the countries,” Charm Tong said.
It was not the first time a personal story has influenced Bush’s foreign policy or prompted the president to act.
After meeting in the Oval Office with former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky a year ago, Bush began incorporating into his own public remarks some of the muscular rhetoric expressed in Sharansky’s book “The Case for Democracy,” which called on the Western powers to confront, rather than accommodate, autocratic regimes.
Similarly, the president’s antipathy toward North Korea’s communist regime seemed to intensify after he read a book by North Korean defector Kang Chol Hwan, who got his own 40-minute Oval Office meeting in June. Two months later, Bush named a special envoy on human rights for North Korea, an action that human rights groups had long advocated.
Last year, Bush hugged 21-year-old Liberian refugee Veronica Braewell, who broke down in tears while telling the president how, at age 13, she was left for dead on a pile of bodies by marauding militants. Bush later intervened personally to increase the number of refugees admitted to the United States.
Last week the doors of the West Wing opened again for the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader who had met with Bush twice before. He urged the president to push for a truly autonomous Tibet when he pays a visit next Sunday to Chinese President Hu Jintao in Beijing.
In Bush’s White House, foreign policy sometimes gets up close and personal.
“This president seems to be profoundly affected by individuals with strong personal stories,” said Tom Malinowski of the advocacy group Human Rights Watch and a National Security Council official in the Clinton administration.
“When the president puts himself in a meeting like that, he is in effect committing himself to take action, which is one reason why politicians often don’t put themselves in such situations,” said Malinowski, who praised Bush for such behavior, even though he is critical of him on other issues.
There is potential risk inherent in such anecdote-rich encounters -- a captivating story and forceful personality could drown out competing but less compelling voices.
The person who pushed for Charm Tong’s access to the White House was Carl Gershman, president of the nonprofit National Endowment for Democracy. Gershman’s group arranged an earlier Oval Office session between Bush and Afghan democracy activists, and the White House had encouraged him to propose candidates for future meetings.
Several weeks ago, Gershman contacted Tim Goeglein, Bush’s liaison with outside advocacy groups, and told him Charm Tong was coming to Washington for a conference. The president might find her story compelling, he said. The White House said it would try to set something up.
Charm Tong met with Bush and several senior officials, including National Security Advisor Stephen J. Hadley, in the Oval Office.
A native of Shan state, home of Myanmar’s largest ethnic minority, Charm Tong was 6 when her parents had her smuggled out of the country to an orphanage in Thailand. She began working with other Burmese refugees in Thailand as a teenager and helped found the Shan Women’s Action Network.
Three years ago, Charm Tong co-wrote a report, “License to Rape,” that detailed incidents of sexual violence by Burmese troops against hundreds of ethnic Shan women and girls.
Myanmar’s military regime has denied the report’s findings, claiming the violence in Shan state is the work of insurgents.
The regime has also been accused of killing, imprisoning and torturing civilians to suppress an ongoing civil war, as well as driving minorities from their homelands and forcing them into slave labor. The government has denied those charges as well.
As Bush and the others questioned her during their White House meeting, Charm Tong felt “a lot of pressure,” she said afterward. “But I am very happy ... to break the silence of what is happening to the people of Burma.”
Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Burlingame), co-founder of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, said Charm Tong’s 50 minutes with Bush would reverberate around the world.
Staff writer Tyler Marshall contributed to this report.