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In Burma, Webb Pursues A Mission for Change

By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 16, 2009

U.S. Sen. James Webb has explored Southeast Asia as a Marine Corps infantryman, a novelist, a journalist and a business consultant, and as a politician who has criticized America's foreign policy and urged for greater involvement.

He has had a particular interest in Burma, whose people, he wrote, "need our assistance and our strong involvement in order to have the kind of future that we claim is our objective in the first place."

Now in the midst of a two-week, five-country tour in which he became the first member of Congress to visit Burma (also known as Myanmar) in a decade, his objective has been to reach out to a country, and a region, that he says the United States left isolated.

But he suddenly found himself in a different role: politician-cum-diplomat. With the conviction of a U.S. citizen there last week, Webb had another issue to deal with as he became the first U.S. leader to meet with the Burmese leader, Gen. Than Shwe.

That meeting led to the release Saturday of John Yettaw, 54, of Falcon, Mo., who was sentenced last week to seven years' hard labor for swimming to the home where Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi was being detained. Webb (D-Va.) was also granted a rare meeting with Suu Kyi, a pro-democracy opposition leader who has spent 14 of the past 20 years under house arrest. Her sentence was extended 18 months for harboring Yettaw.

For Webb, Yettaw's release was the culmination of a career spent largely focused on a region that many Americans know little about, and it accomplished what Webb, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's East Asia and Pacific Affairs subcommittee, has been attempting to do since he took office last year: thrust Burma's struggle, and its relationship with the rest of the world, into the spotlight.

Although he is a political maverick who is often uncomfortable on the campaign stump, the highly decorated Vietnam War veteran was well-suited to sit across the table from a reclusive military junta leader and secure Yettaw's release, officials and colleagues said.

What the Burmese see in Webb "is someone who has been to the region many times and is trying to do it right and do it differently," said former Nebraska senator Bob Kerrey. "He has tremendous credibility. And the thing about the trip is it won't be his last. He's got a sustained interest in the region."

In a statement, Webb said he was "grateful to the Myanmar government for honoring these requests. It is my hope that we can take advantage of these gestures as a way to begin laying the foundation of goodwill and confidence-building in the future."

For years, Webb has blasted U.S. policy for not more fully engaging Burma. In his book "A Time to Fight: Reclaiming a Fair and Just America," which was released last year, he recounted a 2001 trip to the country and lamented how Burma, which after World War II was "thought to be the country with the most promising future in the region, was now ruled by an autocratic, at times ruthless military regime."

U.S. trade sanctions, he argued, only deepened Burma's isolation. As U.S. interests in the country dissipated, China's grew, and Burmese citizens "are now in near-total isolation form the Western world."

He was particularly critical of the U.S. response to the 2007 protests against the military regime, saying the American response was "little more than a hopeless shrug." The reaction of Congress, he wrote, "was to hold a couple of self-important, didactic hearings."

Webb's against-the-grain approach on Burma is nothing new for a man who went from being a Democrat to Republican back to Democrat again. The former infantry officer and Navy secretary has been withering in his criticism of the Iraq war. And he famously snubbed George W. Bush when the president asked about Webb's son, who was deployed to Iraq as a Marine.

Webb's trip to Southeast Asia, which includes stops in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam in addition to Burma, was an independent one, administration officials said last week, and although he was briefed by the State Department, he was "not carrying a message from the administration." The Obama administration has shown signs that it would be more willing to engage with Burma and ease sanctions.

Several dissident groups criticized Webb's meeting with Shwe. The U.S. Campaign for Burma, a Washington-based dissident group, faulted Webb for seeking to improve ties with Burma at a time when its government is stifling political opposition and waging a brutal campaign against ethnic minorities. "It is a setback to the democracy movement in a major way," said Jeremy Woodrum, the group's director.

Webb's relationship with the region solidified during the Vietnam War, when as an infantry officer he was awarded the Navy Cross, a Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts. Shortly after the war, his book "Micronesia and U.S. Pacific Strategy: A Blueprint for the 1980s" was published. It was followed in 1978 by a Vietnam War novel, "Fields of Fire."

Several years ago, Webb gave journalist Tom Brokaw a tour of the region. On Sunday he is scheduled to accompany Yettaw out of Burma on a military aircraft headed to Bangkok.

Staff writer Joby Warrick contributed to this report.

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