Burma's military rulers stole power in l990 when they didn't like the landslide electoral victory of Aung San Suu Kyi. The military leaders put the Nobel Peace prize winner under house arrest, where she remains.
Burma, which lies between India and China, is a center of opium and other illicit drug production. The country is a haven for money-laundering. The military junta skims money from the operations to keep itself going. A large share of the country's 45 million people live in deep poverty.
Tom Malinowski, a director of Human Rights Watch, says the human rights situation in Burma is horrifying. Malinowski has testified before Congress about the reclusive band of military leaders terrorizing Burma's people, including its ethnic minorities.
"Hundreds of thousands of people have been pushed out of their homes, villages burnt. There's almost an epidemic of rape of minority women by members of the military. It's ethnic cleansing," he says.
Malinowski's group, Human Rights Watch, is not shy about criticizing United States foreign policy it considers misguided. However in the case of Burma, Malinowski says, the U.S. is a leader in promoting peaceful means to end the tyranny.
The obstacles are daunting.
The military leaders have jailed 1,500 people for expressing opposing views. Inside Burma, there's a lid on the free flow of information. A Harvard study last year found a U.S. company is helping the Burmese military block Web access.
Robert Bill of Minneapolis says even the country's Internet cafes are monitored.
"To use an Internet cafe there, you have to be registered with the state," he says.
Bill, information technology director at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, visited the Thai-Burmese border area earlier this summer.
Burmese activists have run into a digital stonewall as they try tell the world what's happening there. Bill helped Burmese pro-democracy workers, living in exile in neighboring Thailand, find and use information-gathering tools on the Internet.
"How to do publication, advocacy publication, general office productivity communication, secure communications and database reporting, like incident reporting -- that's kind of important for documenting what's going on," he says.
Following Bill's visit earlier this summer, activists were successful in updating reporting on the military junta's activities.
Robert Bill is a tall, lean 40-year-old native of Fort Dodge, Iowa. He traces his interest in human rights to the work of Augsburg College colleagues who support health and education initiatives in countries around the world.
Bill says he was able to travel for a short distance along Thailand's border with Burma, where he saw camps housing tens of thousands of Burmese refugees living in the deep jungle region.
"(There are) sheer cliffs, the top of the cliffs shrouded in clouds, and then valleys that bend down to the river that divides Thailand and Burma," he says.
Bill's trip was funded in part by U.S. taxpayers through the International Republican Institute, IRI. The IRI is one of four government-supported groups which gives money to people promoting democracy overseas.
The others are the National Democratic Institute and two other groups -- one each reflecting business and labor interests.
The four organizations work with the 23-year-old National Endowment for Democracy, or NED. The Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan nonprofit NED has a budget of about $90 million a year. Most of the money comes from a congressional appropriation NED gets through the U.S. State Department.
Former Minnesota Congressman Vin Weber, a Republican and now a Washington, D.C. lobbyist, chairs the board of the NED. Once in a while, Weber says, there is criticism that the NED is a tool of U.S. spy agencies. Most people from all along the political spectrum, he says, regard the NED's finances as transparent and the work of the four groups it helps fund as positive.
"We make grants basically to human rights groups, trade union groups around the world, and we don't necessarily stamp a great big, 'made in the USA' label on it, because that's not always the most effective way to help build human rights and democracy," Weber says.
The trip by Robert Bill is his first, and he says he's interested in more opportunities.