x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Suu Kyi intruder taken to hospital

But little progress is made in the release of the Myanmar pro-democracy leader who remains under house arrest.

The US Senator Jim Webb and Aung San Suu Kyi discuss the political situation in Myanmar on Saturday.
The US Senator Jim Webb and Aung San Suu Kyi discuss the political situation in Myanmar on Saturday.

BANGKOK // The American John Yettaw has left Myanmar accompanied by US senator Jim Webb at the end of the politician's high profile two-day visit to the country. Mr Yettaw had swam uninvited to the residence of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi three months ago resulting in the detained opposition leader being put under house arrest for a further 18 months and him being sentenced to seven years in jail with hard labour.

Mr Yettaw is now in a Bangkok hospital receiving a medical check-up before returning to the US. "He's got severe medical problems and had a relapse and fit this morning after he was handed over to US Embassy officials," a senior US state department diplomat told The National on condition of anonymity. Mr Yettaw's release was one of three major requests the US senator made during his meeting with the junta's reclusive leader, Gen Than Shwe. The other two were to be permitted to see Suu Kyi and to release her and allow her to participate in the country's political process.

"I remain hopeful that they will give my recommendation that she be freed serious consideration," Mr Webb told The National at a press conference in Bangkok. The senator remained coy about his talks with Gen Shwe and Suu Kyi, though he said he had an extensive exchange with both on the current political process, which the junta calls its "road map" to disciplined democracy. Mr Webb said he told Gen Shwe that "without Aung San Suu being released and allowed to participate in the elections, the US and the international community would find it impossible to accept the process as free and fair." He said Suu Kyi told him she preferred to wait until she and her party had formulated a detailed policy on next year's elections before issuing a statement on their positions.

"On sanctions we had a long and vigorous discussion," Mr Webb added, though he declined to give further details. Many analysts believe it is the senator's support for a change in US policy towards Myanmar and his opposition to sanctions that encouraged the regime to invite him. Mr Webb's visit is the first by a US senator in more than 10 years. But US officials, and Mr Webb himself, played down any suggestion that he was an envoy for the Obama administration or that he was a interlocutor between the two governments.

"I went in a private capacity - and in my role as chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs East Asia and the Pacific subcommittee," he told journalists at the press conference. "But I will be reporting back on the visit to the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, on a wide variety of issues, including increasing humanitarian assistance." The Obama administration is currently deciding what policy changes towards Myanmar could encourage the regime to introduce political reform and make its road map internationally credible, senior state department officials said.

Mr Webb's trip is unlikely to be part of a new policy of engagement by Washington. However, the trip shows that the military regime does want to engage the international community and may heed some of its concerns. Gen Shwe, at the behest of some of Myanmar's Asian allies, especially Singapore and China, is keen to improve relations with the US, according to military sources. "You cannot fail to see in this [meeting] that the junta is keen to tell the world that sanctions do not work and we are open to dialogue - at least with other governments, if not Aung San Suu Kyi and the pro-democracy movement inside the country," said a Yangon-based western diplomat, speaking on condition on anonymity.

Domestically, however, the regime will proceed with its plans for a disciplined democracy irrespective of what the international community thinks, and according to senior Myanmar military sources, the next step will be to create an interim government that Gen Shwe plans to announce next month. The interim government will oversee elections because ministers are not supposed not to use their authority to win their seats.

Government ministries have been told to complete their outstanding work by the end of this month, especially the preparation of statistical information, the sources said. "According to Than Shwe's plans, all the current ministers will have to resign if they are to join a political party and fight the forthcoming elections," Win Min, professor of Myanmar affairs at Chiang Mai University, said. So far there have been no hints as to who will be in the interim administration. Some analysts speculate that it may even include a senior member of Suu Kyi's NLD party.

The regime will also begin to release political prisoners, in accordance with a pledge Gen Shwe made to the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, last month and which was subsequently relayed to the UN security council by the Myanmarese ambassador in New York, who added that they would be allowed to participate in the elections. He did not indicate how many and who would be included, but sources close to the top generals say some high profile political prisoners will be among those freed in the near future.

Still, analysts are sceptical as to whether Gen Shwe plans any real change; even the formation of an interim government may be intended to deflect international criticism. The result, in fact, is more likely to ensure the military retains political control. "There have been abundant signals that the road map is not an inclusive process and the referendum [in May last year] dispelled any remaining doubts - this is a hyper-flawed process that will not lead anywhere," Paulo Pinheiro, a former UN human rights rapporteur for Myanmar, said in an interview.

"It's simply a consolidation of the military's control of the state." ljagan@thenational.ae