Senator Secures Prisoner's Release

A U.S. Senator has secured the release of an American prisoner held in connection with the sentencing of Burma’s most prominent opposition leader.
2009-08-13
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Senator Webb meets with Aung San Suu Kyi at a guest house in Rangoon, on Aug.15, 2009, during the senator's visit to Burma.
Senator Webb meets with Aung San Suu Kyi at a guest house in Rangoon, on Aug.15, 2009, during the senator's visit to Burma.
Office of Senator Jim Webb
Updated on Aug.15
WASHINGTON and BANGKOK—U.S. Senator Jim Webb concluded a two-day visit to Burma by obtaining the release of American prisoner John Yettaw and meeting with Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, currently under house arrest.

Webb, who became the first U.S. leader to meet with Burmese military chief Gen. Than Shwe, raised both issues during his meeting in Burma’s capital Naypyidaw on Saturday.

He also requested that Burma’s ruling military junta release opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from her 18-month sentence of house arrest, following her recent conviction for violating the terms of her house arrest.

Webb expressed his gratitude to the Burmese government for allowing him an audience with Aung San Suu Kyi and for pardoning Yettaw, adding that he hoped to “take advantage of these gestures as a way to begin laying a foundation of goodwill and confidence-building in the future.”

Yettaw will be officially deported from Burma on Sunday and Webb will bring him out of the country on a military aircraft that is returning to Bangkok, Thailand.

Later on Saturday, Webb flew to Burma’s former capital of Rangoon and met with Aung San Suu Kyi for an hour at the State Guest House there.

He described the meeting as an opportunity to convey his “deep respect…for the sacrifices she has made on behalf of democracy around the world.”

A Burmese court this week found Aung San Suu Kyi, 64, guilty of sheltering an uninvited American visitor. Her sentence of three years in prison with hard labor was reduced to 18 months of house arrest by Than Shwe’s order.

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Senator Jim Webb meets with Senior General Than Shwe, on Aug. 15, 2009, in his bunker-like capital, Naypyidaw, Burma. Office of Senator Jim Webb
Aung San Suu Kyi’s conviction drew sharp criticism from world leaders and human rights groups, as well as promises of new European Union sanctions.

Her detention will keep her from participating in elections planned by Burma's junta for next year, the first polls since 1990, when her party won overwhelmingly but was not allowed to take power.

Sanctions debated


Webb, a Democrat from Virginia, serves as chairman of the East Asian and Pacific Affairs Subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

He backs a policy of engagement with Burma, including an end to sanctions.

The new U.S. administration has said it is reviewing the effectiveness of sanctions, notably in light of China’s strong ties with Burma—which critics say sharply limits the effectiveness of U.S. sanctions.

In mid-2001, Webb visited Burma to meet with business leaders, workers, and officials, his office said.

In March this year, he cited his 2001 visit and described U.S. sanctions as “counter-productive in terms of our ability to affect the difficulties faced by the Burmese people.”

“The sanctions policy against Burma will never be effective as long as a major power on its border (China) declines to participate and in fact take advantage of those sanctions in order to entrench its positions in that same country,” he said at the time.

“I have said for several years that it is to the benefit of all involved that we speak directly with Burma’s leadership and work toward resolving our differences.”

The U.S. Senate also recently began reviewing Burma policy amid frustration that existing sanctions are not spurring progress toward democratization, the release of political prisoners, and other reforms there.

Caution urged

David Mathieson, a Burma consultant for Human Rights Watch, urged caution on Webb’s part.

“We’ve got to remember that the SPDC selectively chooses which international leaders and other diplomats that it speaks to, and it’s usually on their terms,” he said, using an acronym for the junta’s official name, the State Peace and Development Council.

Webb is “part of a very robust debate going on—not just in the Senate, but in the State Department and other circles of American power—over what to do with Burma,” he added.

“But importantly, I don’t think now really is the time to drop any of the sanctions that are currently imposed against the SPDC, given the deplorable, reprehensible sentence against Aung San Suu Kyi just two days ago,” he added.

Original reporting by Kyaw Min Htun for RFA's Burmese service. Burmese service director: Nancy Shwe. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Written and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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