Whatever else one thinks of George Bush, few could deny the contribution he, and particularly his wife Laura, made to raising the profile of the suffering in Burma . In 2005, he spent almost an hour in the Oval Office with a young Shan woman activist from Burma , Charm Tong, and heard about the military regime's use of rape as a weapon of war. In 2006, a day after former Czech President Vaclav Havel and former Archbishop of Cape Town Desmond Tutu published a report calling for Burma to be placed on the UN security council agenda, the US declared its support for the initiative.
The US consistently led the way in raising Burma at the security council and seeking a resolution, initially with slow and grudging support from its natural allies. The US has the only meaningful set of sanctions against the regime, and in the past two years it has sought to tighten and target them further.
Laura Bush became a particular champion of Burma, making personal telephone calls to UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, hosting a roundtable at the UN in New York and holding her own press conference after Cyclone Nargis in which she strongly condemned the military regime's denial of aid to the victims. Last year, on a visit to Thailand, Mr Bush met Burmese dissidents in the US embassy in Bangkok, and his wife visited a refugee camp along the Thai-Burmese border. For all their faults, the former president and first lady were consistent in highlighting the crisis in Burma and increasing international pressure on the junta.
As President Obama and secretary of state Hillary Clinton develop their foreign policy, they face many challenges, not least in the Middle East. Africa will understandably be a priority, given the scale of poverty on the continent and the president's own personal roots. Relations with Pakistan and China will be of strategic importance, and like Africa, the president will have a particular interest in Indonesia having spent part of his childhood there. But amid this long list of issues, the new administration must not lose sight of the dire situation in Burma.
There are five key ways in which the new administration can build on the previous government's record on Burma. First, keep raising Burma at every opportunity, within the UN and with Burma's neighbours. Empower the US special envoy appointed in the final days of the Bush administration to accelerate and intensify the international effort for change in Burma.
Second, don't let the increasingly vocal and misplaced criticism of sanctions and international pressure result in a change in the US sanctions, but rather focus sanctions more sharply at their rightful target – the generals.
Third, step up pressure on the UN secretary-general, his special envoy and the security council to spell out meaningful benchmarks for progress, accompanied by a clear indication of the consequences if the regime fails to comply. The first such benchmark should be the release of political prisoners and the beginning of meaningful dialogue.
Fourth, consider invoking the UN's "responsibility to protect" mechanism in regard to Burma. The regime is perpetrating crimes against humanity, including the use of rape as a weapon of war, forced labour, torture, forcible conscription of child soldiers, the use of human minesweepers and the destruction of more than 3,200 villages in eastern Burma alone. Over a million people are internally displaced, and thousands more forced to flee the country. The situation surely meets "responsibility to protect" criteria. Lastly, the US should abandon its previous opposition to the international criminal court and seek a referral of a case against Burma's generals for crimes against humanity.
Burma's suffering under military rule has gone on for almost half a century. But in the past two years, the junta has surpassed itself in its level of callousness and brutality. The brutal suppression of Buddhist monks in September 2007, the deliberate restriction and diversion of aid following Cyclone Nargis last year, the sham referendum on a new constitution, the sentencing of dissidents to 65 years or more in jail and the regime's failure to help Chin people in western Burma facing famine are all examples of its barbaric nature.
The junta is gearing up to solidify and legitimise its rule through elections in 2010, but everyone knows what a sham the ballot will be. And yet various UN agencies, non-governmental organisations and academics have been painting an extraordinarily rosy picture of the situation, which has little relation to reality.
Bush may have made many mistakes, but unlike many in the international community he did not pussyfoot about on Burma. Obama may be more predisposed toward consensual multilateral politics than his predecessor, but he should not do so at the cost of yet more lives in Burma. Be more favourable toward the UN, by all means Mr Obama – but give it back the spine it has lost.