- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 16, 2009

Virginia Sen. Jim Webb on Saturday became the first U.S. official to meet with the reclusive military ruler of Myanmar and won the release of an American man sentenced to seven years of hard labor in the country.

In a rare gesture that could signal a softening stance by the ruling junta, Mr. Webb also was allowed to meet with opposition democracy leader and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

“I am grateful to the Myanmar government for honoring these requests,” Mr. Webb said in a statement released by his office in Washington. “It is my hope that we can take advantage of these gestures as a way to begin laying a foundation of good will and confidence-building in the future.”

Myanmar’s military government has faced strong international condemnation over the trial of Mrs. Suu Kyi for violating the terms of her detention when the American, John Yettaw, swam to her lakeside house in May.

Mr. Webb, a Democrat, is the first foreign official to meet with Mrs. Suu Kyi since she was sentenced to an additional 18 months of house arrest Tuesday. Mrs. Suu Kyi, 64, has been detained for 14 of the past 20 years.

Mr. Yettaw, 53, of Missouri was held in the notorious Insein Prison in Yangon. At Mrs. Suu Kyi’s trial, Mr. Yettaw testified that he swam to her home to warn her after he had a vision that she would be assassinated.

Mr. Webb said Mr. Yettaw will be officially deported Sunday and he will leave the country on Mr. Webb’s military aircraft, flying to Bangkok.

“If it’s true, of course I’m extremely happy and we’re ecstatic,” Betty Yettaw told the Associated Press, referring to reports that her husband would be freed.

Mr. Webb arrived in Myanmar’s capital, Naypyidaw, on Friday.

The concession apparently came out of Mr. Webb’s meeting Saturday with the junta chief, Senior Gen. Than Shwe. The reclusive military council chief had not met a senior U.S. official before.

Mr. Webb said he also pressed the general for the release of Mrs. Suu Kyi, but she is unlikely to be freed before elections scheduled for next year.

Mrs. Suu Kyi was driven from her residence to a nearby government guesthouse in Yangon for her 40-minute meeting with Mr. Webb on Saturday, the AP reported. She later was driven back to her run-down lakeside home.

In July, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was not allowed to meet with her during a two-day visit.

Mr. Webb described his talk with the democracy activist as “an opportunity … to convey my deep respect to Aung San Suu Kyi for the sacrifices she has made on behalf of democracy around the world.”

The United States has been the strongest critic of the military regime in Myanmar and has imposed a series of economic sanctions. However, the Obama administration has signaled a desire to engage the junta. According to the AP, President Obama’s new ambassador for East Asia, Kurt Campbell, recently said the administration is interested in easing its policy of isolation.

Mr. Webb faced criticism from Myanmar’s democracy activists, who said his visit - the first by a member of Congress in more than a decade - will offer legitimacy to the regime. In a letter to Mr. Webb, dissident groups warned that the junta would use the senator’s trip for its own ends.

Myanmar’s state TV, however, heralded Mr. Webb’s arrival, featuring his meetings with the country’s leaders in Saturday’s broadcasts, the AP reported.

Mr. Webb, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s East Asia and Pacific affairs subcommittee, is visiting Myanmar in a private capacity, but both Mr. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton are thought to have supported the trip.

Mr. Webb, a first-term senator, is a Vietnam veteran, former U.S. secretary of the Navy and former journalist who has reported from across Asia.

Mr. Yettaw’s case marks the second high-profile release of Americans overseas in as many weeks.

Last week, former President Bill Clinton flew to North Korea to meet with the regime’s reclusive leader, Kim Jong-il, securing the freedom of two U.S. reporters convicted of illegally entering the country.

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