U.S. Senator Jim Webb made significant inroads on his visit to Burma
Saturday, meeting separately with the head of Burma's ruling military
government and the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Senator Webb also secured the release of an
American jailed for visiting Aung San Suu Kyi.
Within hours of
holding talks with Burma's leader General Than Shwe in the
administrative capital Naypyitaw, Senator Jim Webb flew to Rangoon and
met with democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi at a government guest house.
unprecedented access to Aung San Suu Kyi comes just days after her
house arrest was extended to another 18 months. She was convicted
Tuesday of violating the terms of her house arrest after American John
Yettaw swam uninvited to her lakeside villa in May and stayed for two
Webb secured the release of Yettaw, who had been sentenced
to seven years in prison. Yettaw will leave Burma Sunday for Thailand
together with the senator.
In a statement, Webb said he is
grateful to Burma's government for honoring those requests. He says he
hopes the U.S. and Burma could "take advantage of these
gestures as a way to begin laying a foundation of goodwill and
confidence-building in the future."
Senator Webb became the
first senior U.S. official to meet with the reclusive General Than
Shwe. The Democrat senator is the chairman of the Senate Foreign
Relations subcommittee on East Asia and Pacific Affairs. He has
publicly expressed support for diplomacy, aimed at eventually lifting
U.S. sanctions on Burma.
Both the White House and the State Department say Webb is not carrying any specific message from U.S. President Barack Obama.
Stothard, coordinator of the rights group, Alternative ASEAN Network on
Burma in Bangkok says it is still unclear whether real political
reforms in Burma will follow.
"General Than Shwe would have
welcomed Senator Webb as an ally because Senator Webb has taken a
public stand against US sanctions against the regime," she said. "He
would have gone out of his way to grant Senator Webb a meeting with
Aung San Suu Kyi."
"If we really want to see change, if we
really want to see Senator Webb making a change on Burma, we've got to
see the release of political prisoners and cessation of military
hostilities against ethnic nationality groups," she added.
Webb also met with Prime Minister Thien Sein, Foreign Minister Nyan
Win, the chairman of the State Constitution Drafting Commission Aung
Toe and representatives from political parties, including Aung San Suu
Kyi's National League for Democracy and state-affiliated social
Webb's visit has raised speculation of a policy
shift in Washington toward the repressive state. The White House said
prior to the meeting that Webb would convey "strong" U.S. views on
Burma's political future.
Last month, Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton said the release of Aung San Suu Kyi would open doors for an
expansion in bilateral ties and U.S. investments in Burma. The U.S. has
imposed economic sanctions on Burma's government, including an
investment ban, because of the government's repressive policies.