Cindy McCain says she would make Myanmar human rights a priority as US first lady

HANOI, Vietnam: Cindy McCain blasted Myanmar’s military junta Thursday and vowed to make improving human rights there a priority if she becomes America’s next first lady.

She traveled to Asia this week, far from the U.S. presidential campaign trail and her husband, Republican presidential nominee-in-waiting Sen. John McCain, to showcase her charity work and get a close-up look at relief efforts for victims of last month’s devastating cyclone in Myanmar.

She said she didn’t even bother trying to get a visa to Myanmar, knowing it would likely be denied by the secretive government. Instead, the U.N. World Food Program in Thailand will brief her Friday about its work.

Cyclone Nargis killed more than 78,000 people and left another 56,000 missing, according to the government, which has turned away some assistance offered by the United States and other countries.

“It’s just a terrible group of people that rule the country, and the frightening part is that their own people are dying of disease and starvation and everything else and it doesn’t matter,” she said in Vietnam, while working with a charity that helps children born with facial deformities. “I don’t understand how human life doesn’t matter to somebody. But clearly, it doesn’t matter to them.”

Current first lady Laura Bush also has been a sharp critic of human rights abuses in Myanmar, also known as Burma.

Cindy McCain said she would continue that push if she winds up in the White House. She has visited Myanmar twice, including once when her husband met with pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been in detention for more than 12 of the past 18 years.

She also visited the Vietnamese coastal town of Nha Trang where about 100 children born with cleft palates and cleft lips were awaiting free surgery provided by the U.S. charity Operation Smile. The procedures will take place offshore on one of the U.S. Navy’s hospital ships, the USNS Mercy.

She has made several trips to Vietnam, where her husband was shot down during the Vietnam War and held for more than five years as a prisoner of war.

“This is what I do, and this is what revitalizes me, personally,” she said. “The campaign is extremely important, of course, but this is also important to me, and so you try to balance everything.”

She has been actively involved with Operation Smile since 2001 and is a member of its board of directors.

She has a special connection to Vietnam because she and her husband first helped a baby, Phuoc Thi Le, receive reconstructive surgery on her cleft palate and cleft lip in 1997 after a chance meeting with the girl’s uncle in Arizona. Cindy McCain reunited with Le, now 11, during her one-day visit.

The McCains later adopted a daughter from Bangladesh who also was born with a facial deformity.

“When you see a child anywhere, say a child that doesn’t have food or a child with a cleft palate who’s been kept in a back room because the family is embarrassed or whatever it may be, it takes you back to really what’s basic and what’s really important,” Cindy McCain said.

She also plans to visit Cambodia to participate in charity work there.

Separately, she told ABC’s “Good Morning America” in an interview aired Thursday that she believes Democrat Barack Obama “is a fine man” and his wife, Michelle, is “a fine woman,” but the presidential election “is about who would be better and I think my husband would be better.”

Cindy McCain caused a stir in the presidential race when she took exception to Michelle Obama’s February comment that for the first time in her adult life she was proud of the United States. She pointedly told reporters at the time: “I have, and always will be, proud of my country.”

But Cindy McCain softened her tone when asked by ABC about the remark. “It wasn’t about being insulted at all. I don’t know why she said that — everyone has their own experience. I don’t know why she said what she said. All I know is that I’ve always been proud of my country.”