US senator may meet Burmese junta leader

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The Independent Online

A US senator arrived in Myanmar today and a government source said he would meet the leader of the country's junta, which was condemned by the United States this week for the trial of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Jim Webb, chairman of a Senate subcommittee on East Asia and Pacific affairs, arrived in Naypyidaw, the south east Asian country's remote new capital, and would meet leader Than Shwe tomorrow, said the source who declined to be named.

Webb is the first member of Congress to travel in an official capacity to Myanmar in more than a decade, and has also been described as the first senior American official ever to meet Than Shwe.

It is unclear what he aims to achieve. He arrives the same week that Suu Kyi, a Nobel peace laureate and a symbol of the movement for democracy in Myanmar, was sentenced to another 18 months' house arrest for violating a security law.

The US embassy in Myanmar has little knowledge of Webb's plans and says all arrangements were made by his office in Washington.

According to some reports, he may press for the release of John Yettaw, the American who swam uninvited to Suu Kyi's lakeside home in May. The authorities said his two-day stay there breached the terms of her house arrest, which led to her trial.

Yettaw himself was sentenced to seven years' hard labor in a parallel trial on Tuesday on three charges, including immigration offences and "swimming in a non-swimming area." His health is fragile and he spent several days in hospital this month.

President Barack Obama said the conviction violated universal principles of human rights and called for her release.

In May, Obama extended a ban on US investment in Myanmar first imposed in 1997 because of the authorities' repression of the opposition. He has also renewed sanctions targeting imports from Myanmar.

Before Suu Kyi's trial ended, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held out the prospect of better relations with Myanmar but made that conditional on the release of Suu Kyi and other political prisoners.

Webb's office said on August 6 he would travel to five countries in south east Asia on a two-week mission "to explore opportunities to advance US interests in Burma (Myanmar) and the region."

He is not expected to be allowed to see Suu Kyi in her Yangon home, but the military government has invited members of political parties, including senior members of her National League for Democracy, to Naypyidaw this weekend.

Webb flew to Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, from Laos and will also visit Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

He is a former US Navy Secretary and a Vietnam War veteran who speaks Vietnamese.