x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Senator's visit a rare event for Myanmar

Speculation surrounds the reasons behind US politician's trip, who is expected to meet the leader of the military junta.

BANGKOK // A prominent US politician, Senator Jim Webb, was expected to meet Myanmar's reclusive leader, Gen Than Shwe later today, the most senior US official to visit the military-ruled country in more than 10 years. Little is know about the purpose of the visit, although there is speculation that he may be on a mercy mission to try to free the 54-year-old American, John Yettaw, who was sentenced to seven years in prison with hard labour on Tuesday for his involvement in the detained pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, allegedly breaking the conditions of her house arrest.

American diplomats were being tight-lipped about the visit. Myanmar pro-democracy groups abroad have already condemned the visit as a publicity stunt on the part of Myanmar's ruling junta. Diplomats in Yangon remain sceptical that anything useful can come out of the trip - although some believe anything could happen if Mr Webb does have a fruitful meeting with Gen Than Shwe. "It is vitally important that the United States re-engage with south-east Asia at all levels," Mr Webb said on his arrival in the Lao capital Vientiane on Thursday, the first stop on his five-country regional tour.

Mr Webb, a Democrat and the chairman of the Senate East Asia and Pacific affairs committee, is a strong supporter of a change in US policy towards Myanmar. He is also known to be a staunch critic of his country's sanctions policy. But last month he conceded that the recent trial of Ms Suu Kyi made it difficult for Washington to pursue "meaningful relations" with Myanmar. Ms Suu Kyi, who has spent more than 14 of the last 20 years in detention, was sentenced on Tuesday to a further 18 months of house arrest for allegedly harbouring an uninvited intruder - Mr Yettaw - who swam across a lake to the back of her residence. Her lawyers are appealing against the conviction and sentence.

"Aung San Suu Kyi said the conviction was totally unfair and the court's assessment of the case was not just," her chief lawyer, Nyan Win, said. Mr Webb is anxious not to be seen as a pawn or puppet of the regime. Several key members of the central executive of Ms Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, were flown to Naypitdaw, Myanmar's capital, yesterday to meet the senator. It is unclear whether Mr Webb will request a meeting with the detained opposition leader herself before he leaves the country tomorrow or, if he did, whether he would be granted one. The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, was refused such a visit this month when he met the top general, but Mr Webb may be seen as a potential ally to be courted.

The restrictions on Ms Suu Kyi include being allowed some visitors, but only with prior permission from the regime. This was the case in 2000, when the secret talks between her and the junta, brokered by the UN special envoy Razali Ibrahim, started. Those talks led to her temporary release from house arrest in May 2002. If Mr Webb tries to become involved, it will not be the first time a US politician has tried to play a role in Myanmar politics. In February 1994, during Ms Suu Kyi's first term of house arrest, the congressman Bill Richardson was allowed to visit her and then had talks with the military intelligence chief, Gen Khin Nyunt, hoping to secure her release and start a dialogue between the two sides. His efforts failed.

ljagan@thenational.ae