The statement from Washington said Webb, who was on a two-day visit to Burma,
secured the release of John Yettaw, who was sentenced on Tuesday to seven
years’ imprisonment for swimming secretly to Suu Kyi’s lakeside residence.
Webb was allowed to meet Suu Kyi, who was sentenced to 18 months house arrest
for allowing Yettaw to stay at her residence for two days.
Before his conviction on Tuesday, Yettaw had spent a week in a prison hospital
for epileptic seizures. He is also said to suffer from asthma and diabetes.
The junta may have approved the US politician’s meeting with Suu Kyi to
mitigate the torrent of international criticism against Burma following the
trial and verdict. In July, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was barred from
meeting Suu Kyi during a two-day visit.
Webb, the statement from his office said, requested that Suu Kyi be released
during a meeting with junta leader Senior General Than Shwe today.
Today, 64-year-old Nobel Peace laureate Suu Kyi was driven from her residence
to a nearby government guest house for a 40-minute meeting with Webb, then
reporters saw her taken home by car.
Webb, who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s East Asia
and Pacific Affairs Subcommittee, described the meeting as “an opportunity
… to convey my deep respect to Aung San Suu Kyi for the sacrifices she has
made on behalf of democracy around the world”.
While Washington has traditionally been Burma’s strongest critic, applying
political and economic sanctions against the junta, President Barack Obama’s
new ambassador for East Asia, Kurt Campbell, recently said the
administration was interested in easing its policy of isolation. Webb has
said that “affirmative engagement” could bring the most change to Burma,
concerning those who think a hard line is the best approach.
Britain’s Ambassador to the United Nations today suggested Webb’s visit could
help persuade the junta to free Suu Kyi.
“If the Americans can get the generals to see that their country’s interest is
reflected in taking interest in reconciliation, releasing Aung San Suu Kyi
and holding free and fair elections, that would be very helpful.” John
Sawyers told BBC Radio 4.
But in a letter to Webb, dissident groups warned the junta would use the
Senator’s trip for its own ends.
“We are concerned that the military regime will manipulate and exploit your
visit and propagandise that you endorse their treatment on Daw Aung San Suu
Kyi and over 2,100 political prisoners, their human rights abuses on the
people of Burma, and their systematic, widespread and ongoing attack against
the ethnic minorities,” the letter said. Daw is a term of respect for older
women in Myanmar.
Possibly reflecting a similar wariness, a spokesman for Suu Kyi’s National
League for Democracy said the party “has no interest in Jim Webb because he
is not known to have any interest in Myanmar affairs”. He did not elaborate.
Official media, however, appeared to herald Webb’s arrival. The nightly
broadcast led with the visit, reporting that the senator met Prime Minister
Gen Thein Sein on Friday, and returned to the subject several times during
Burma has been under military rule since 1962. The junta called elections in
1990 but refused to honour the results when Suu Kyi’s party won
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