Burma Releases Detained American

By Tim Johnston
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 17, 2009

BANGKOK, Aug. 16 -- Burmese authorities have released the American whose uninvited visit to the home of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi led to her being sentenced to 18 more months of house arrest, allowing him to leave the country Sunday with Sen. James Webb (D-Va.).

"He's not a well man. He had a medical incident this morning when they read him his orders of deportation. He's now undergoing a thorough medical review in a hospital and soon he will be able to return to his family," Webb told a news conference in Bangkok after returning from a two-day visit to Burma, also known as Myanmar.

John Yettaw, 54, a Vietnam War veteran who suffers from epilepsy and post-traumatic stress disorder, was sentenced last week to seven years in jail for swimming across the lake behind Suu Kyi's house to warn her that he had had a vision in which she was killed by terrorists.

Webb, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs, is the most senior U.S. official to visit Burma in more than two decades. He used his rare meeting with the government's leadership to ask for Yettaw's release on humanitarian grounds, for a visit with Suu Kyi and for her release.

"They granted two of those three requests in the meetings. They have not yet communicated on the third," Webb said Sunday.

Although he expressed his gratitude to Burmese authorities for freeing Yettaw and allowing him to see Suu Kyi, he was careful not to say he is optimistic about her release.

"I am hopeful that as the months go forward, they will take a look at it," he said of his request that Suu Kyi be released.

Many analysts think Burmese authorities used Yettaw's visit as an excuse to keep Suu Kyi out of circulation in the run-up to elections, due to be held next year.

"I hope that over time, the government of Myanmar will understand that with the scrutiny of the outside world judging their government very largely on how they are treating Aung San Suu Kyi, that it is to their advantage to allow her to participate in the political process," Webb said.

Webb gave little indication of how his suggestions were received by Gen. Than Shwe, who leads the government, and the other generals he met.

Webb's visit has been controversial. Many observers think it sent the wrong signals to a regime that had only days earlier defied concerted international pressure to release Suu Kyi from detention. But Webb is part of a growing movement that thinks past attempts to isolate the regime have failed and that engagement is the only alternative.

"The problem with international policy towards Burma has been that it's been all about 'sending the right signal' -- it has all been about symbolism, with very little substance and pragmatic thinking," said Thant Myint-U, an analyst who is a leading proponent of engagement.

It is a position that resonates with the Obama administration, and Webb's trip to Burma has significant echoes of the recent visit by former president Bill Clinton to North Korea.

"Jim Webb's trip hopefully represents a watershed towards a more pragmatic approach that will actually yield results, that will help the Burmese people and be in the U.S. national interest," Thant said.

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