When John Yettaw boarded a plane in Rangoon yesterday morning, the American senator who secured his release hailed the moment as a possible first step towards better relations between Burma and the West. But as the man whose exploits gave the junta an excuse to further detain Aung Sun Suu Kyi headed away from the notorious Insein prison, a fresh debate began on whether the West should pursue greater engagement with the country.
The haggard-looking 53-year-old, whose night-time swim to Ms Suu Kyi's lakeside house led to her detention being extended, headed to Thailand yesterday with the US Senator Jim Webb. Mr Webb, the first Congressman to visit Burma for a decade, had secured Mr Yettaw's release after meeting Senior General Than Shwe. He was also allowed to spend 45 minutes with Ms Suu Kyi, who was sentenced last week to a further 18 months under house arrest.
After Mr Webb arrived with Mr Yettaw in neighbouring Thailand, the senator said he had asked the junta to release the opposition leader ahead of an election scheduled for next year.
"I'm hopeful as the months move forward they will take a look," he told reporters. "With the scrutiny of the outside world judging their government very largely through how they are treating Aung San Suu Kyi, it's to their advantage that she's allowed to participate in the political process. I believe that it will be impossible for the rest of the world to believe the elections were free and fair if she was not released."
Months ago, President Barack Obama extended a ban on US investment in Burma imposed in 1997. Yet there are a voices who believe that closer engagement, including the lifting of a de facto travel boycott, would achieve more.
Derek Tonkin, a former British ambassador who chairs the Myanmar Network, said Mr Webb believed that sanctions had been counter-productive, a view he shared. "His view is that sanctions have been harmful," he said. "He believes the policy has had the opposite outcome than was intended."
Since 2003, when Aung San Suu Kyi said it was not the right time for tourists to visit Burma, there has been a strong campaign among activists in the West to deter travellers from visiting the country, arguing that such trips provide money to the regime and benefit only a small number of ordinary citizens. That year, the bespoke tour operator Abercrombie and Kent was among several organisations that halted tours to Burma.
It was reported over the weekend that the opposition leader had since reversed her view on the travel boycott, though campaigners said there was no evidence to support this.
Mark Farmaner, of the Burma Campaign UK, said releasing Mr Yettaw had been an easy decision for the regime after they had used him as an excuse to keep Ms Suu Kyi detained until after the election. "Than Shwe is looking for closer contact with Webb," he said. "He knows Webb is opposed to sanctions and wants to have a softer approach."
Mr Farmaner, whose organisation backs effective sanctions against Burma and supports a travel boycott, added: "We see sanctions as being one of the tools in the tool box. People say that sanctions don't work but we have ineffective sanctions."
The US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, recently said the US's relationship with Burma could only improve once the Nobel laureate and an estimated 2,000 other political prisoners were released from jail.
Mr Webb also said he believed in closer engagement, saying: "I have long believed that if certain obstacles are removed, there is a natural friendship between the US and the people of this country, and it is toward that end I came here and I will be working toward that solution."Reuse content