Webb Visit May Offer Opening With Burma

Junta Agrees to Free Imprisoned American

Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, August 16, 2009

Sen. James Webb met with top officials in the hard-line military government of Burma on Saturday and arranged for the release of an American prisoner there, part of a mission that may open the door to further U.S. engagement, according to senior administration officials.

Accompanied by U.S. Embassy officials, Webb (D-Va.) traveled to the remote Burmese administrative capital of Naypyidaw to hold rare talks with the country's leader, Gen. Than Shwe. Webb also paid an hour-long visit to pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is under house arrest. He was told that Burma would allow John W. Yettaw, 54, sentenced last week to seven years in prison for intruding on the Nobel laureate's heavily guarded home, to leave the country with him Sunday.

The agreement to free Yettaw, of Falcon, Mo., follows North Korea's release of two American journalists to former president Bill Clinton during a visit to Pyongyang this month. On Saturday, Michael A. Hammer, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said that "these trips are private, humanitarian missions unlinked to our policies."

But a senior official said the administration sees the two visits in starkly different terms. Although Clinton was briefed by the administration before his trip, and he is expected to provide valuable firsthand information about it in formal debriefings this week, he "has no job in the government," the official said.

Moreover, the primary purpose of Clinton's trip was to win the release of the women who had been detained. Their families had initiated the request for Clinton to travel to North Korea.

The release of Yettaw, by contrast, was "serendipitous," the senior official said, adding that Webb went to Burma "to have substantive conversations" as the head of the Senate's Foreign Relations subcommittee on East Asia and Pacific affairs. Webb "wasn't given instructions" in administration briefings before his departure, the official said, but is "familiar with our thinking."

"We felt that if he could be a way of getting a message" to Burma's leadership about the administration's views, the trip could be useful, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, about evolving policy.

Unlike with North Korea and Iran, the United States has maintained diplomatic relations with Burma, also known as Myanmar. But "our problem is that we can't get high-level meetings" with the reclusive junta, the official said.

Yettaw, a military veteran who suffers from diabetes and post-traumatic stress disorder, swam across the lake behind Suu Kyi's dilapidated villa in May to warn her that he had had a vision in which she was killed by terrorists. She said she allowed him to stay overnight to overcome his exhaustion. Last week, she was sentenced to an additional 18 months under house arrest for violating the terms of her detention. Yettaw was found guilty of security and immigration violations.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Yettaw's wife, Betty, said she had not received official notice of his release. "If it's true," she said, "of course I'm extremely happy and we're ecstatic."

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

The administration has been exploring the prospect of better relations with Burma, offering to consider allowing U.S. investments -- now prohibited under economic sanctions -- in exchange for Suu Kyi's release, and allowing opposition groups, including her National League for Democracy, to participate in elections scheduled for next year. U.S. diplomats held one meeting with the Burmese foreign minister in March and another in June.

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