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US senator set for historic meet with Myanmar ruler

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US senator set for historic meet with Myanmar ruler

(AFP) – 9 hours ago

YANGON — A US senator plans this week to become the first top American official to meet Myanmar’s junta chief, his office said Thursday, days after the regime extended the detention of Aung San Suu Kyi.

The talks between Democrat Jim Webb, who is close to US President Barack Obama, and military strongman Than Shwe come after Tuesday’s conviction of Suu Kyi and an American man who swam to her lakeside house.

“Later this week, US Senator Jim Webb is scheduled to meet with leaders at the highest levels of the national government in Burma (Myanmar), including Senior General Than Shwe,” a statement from Webb’s office said.

“If the Shwe meeting takes place it will be the first time that a senior American official has ever met with Burma’s top leader,” it said, noting also that no member of Congress has visited Myanmar in over a decade.

Webb — a hard-nosed Vietnam veteran who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on East Asia and Pacific affairs — kicked off a two-week regional tour in Laos on Thursday and is scheduled to visit Myanmar this weekend.

“It is vitally important that the United States re-engage with Southeast Asia at all levels,” the Virginian said as he arrived in the Lao capital Vientiane.

Myanmar has faced international outrage since Than Shwe on Tuesday ordered that Nobel peace laureate Suu Kyi should remain under house arrest for another 18 months, after commuting a three-year jail term.

Also convicted along with 64-year-old Suu Kyi was US citizen John Yettaw, who triggered her trial with his bizarre swimming stunt and was sentenced to seven years of hard labour.

A Myanmar government official could not confirm Webb would meet Than Shwe, who assumed power in 1992, but said that the US politician’s visit was a “positive” sign of change in the Obama administration’s stance.

Washington maintains strict sanctions on Myanmar but is reviewing its policies, with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently offering potential investment opportunities to the junta if it frees Suu Kyi.

“I think it is a change leading to the positive,” the Myanmar official said on condition of anonymity.

“The American (Webb) needs to talk with both sides, they always talk to the NLD (Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party) but they refuse to talk with our authorities,” the official said.

“They also ban our officials from travelling to their country. But during the Obama administration there was a visit from a US official to Naypyidaw (the junta capital) so it is likely to improve.”

The last US official to visit Myanmar was Stephen Blake, the State Department’s director of Southeast Asian Affairs, in March.

He met Foreign Minister Nyan Win but not Than Shwe, who has long been considered a bete noire to the United States.

Diplomats played down speculation that Webb’s visit could secure the immediate release of Yettaw, following demands by Obama for the junta to free him as well as all political prisoners including Suu Kyi.

“Yettaw could become something of a bargaining chip,” a western diplomat said, adding that it was likely the regime gave him such a long sentence hoping for a trade-off in terms of relaxing the US stance against Myanmar.

“After Webb’s visit, Yettaw could stay in prison for a short time and then be deported. But the generals have let it be known that it is a trade-off,” the diplomat said.

Yettaw’s lawyer Khin Maung Oo said Wednesday that they would appeal against his sentence and if necessary urge Than Shwe to deport him.

Suu Kyi’s lawyer, Nyan Win, dismissed the significance of Webb’s visit.

“Webb will just come here for economic reasons, so we have no interest in his visit,” he said.

But Myanmar researcher David Mathieson of Human Rights Watch said it was “significant” that Than Shwe had agreed to meet Webb, given the military ruler’s “distrust and xenophobia”.

“I think Than Shwe will probably appreciate Webb’s military background and his seniority,” he told AFP, but he warned “obviously Than Shwe will try and turn it to his advantage”.

Written by Lwin Aung Soe

August 13, 2009 at 10:52 am

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