By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 14, 2009
Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) said Thursday that he will travel to Burma later this week to meet with the country's top officials, including military ruler Than Shwe, marking the first time a high-ranking U.S. politician will meet with the reclusive general.
Webb, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific affairs, will be the first member of Congress to visit Burma in more than a decade, according to a statement from his office.
The visit, part of a two-week tour of five Asian nations, is the latest attempt by Webb to increase U.S. engagement with Burma, also known as Myanmar. The State Department helped arrange for Webb's travel to Burma, but it remained unclear whether the senator would be transmitting any official message to the country's rulers.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has expressed frustration with the long-standing U.S. policy toward Burma, saying that years of economic sanctions have failed to open the Southeast Asian country to democratic reform.
Kurt M. Campbell, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said during his confirmation hearing in June that the United States is "prepared to reach out" to Burma. But he said the arrest of Burma's main opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is making it "difficult to go forward."
Suu Kyi and two companions were sentenced by a government-run court on Tuesday to 18 months under house arrest for hosting an American intruder who entered her heavily guarded villa uninvited. John W. Yettaw, the 54-year-old American who swam across a lake to get to Suu Kyi's home, was sentenced to seven years in prison, including four years of hard labor.
One source familiar with the case, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Webb hoped to use the trip to secure Yettaw's release.
The U.N. Security Council issued a statement Thursday expressing "serious concern" over the verdict in Suu Kyi's case but stopped short of demanding her release. Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said Burma's action has "deepened their isolation from the rest of the world."
Webb's announcement comes as an alliance of Burmese pro-democracy and ethnic groups unveiled a set of demands Thursday ahead of the country's elections next year, including calls for revisions to the military junta's latest constitution and the release of all detained democracy activists.
On the second day of a two-day conference in Indonesia, the Movement for Democracy and Rights of Ethnic Nationalities presented a document outlining steps to legitimize the 2010 elections, and move Burma toward democracy and promote its economic development.
The group also called for the release of Suu Kyi and the 2,100 other political prisoners held by the government.
Correspondents Katherine Demopoulos in Jakarta and Tim Johnston in Bangkok contributed to this report.