US Senator meets Burmese leader and Suu Kyi

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US Senator Jim Webb met both Burma's top military leader Than Shwe and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi today, but it was unclear what he discussed during his separate meetings with them.

Webb met Than Shwe at the country's remote new capital of Naypyidaw on the second day of his visit and later talked with Suu Kyi for about 45 minutes at a guesthouse arranged by government officials in Yangon.

A witness told Reuters the 64-year-old Nobel peace laureate was taken by car from her lakeside home, where she was put under another 18 months of house arrest this week, to a guesthouse to meet the senator.

She was found guilty by a Burmese court for violating a security law after an eccentric American swam across the lake and stayed in her home.

Webb, chairman of a Senate subcommittee on East Asia and Pacific, is the first member of Congress to travel in an official capacity to Burma in more than a decade. He has been described as the first senior American official ever to meet Than Shwe.

Webb's visit comes in the wake of world anger over the conviction of Suu Kyi, a symbol of the movement for democracy in Myanmar, and some Burmese dissident groups expressed unhappiness about the timing of his visit.

Webb may press for the release of John Yettaw, who swam uninvited to Suu Kyi's home in May. He was sentenced to seven years' hard labour in a parallel trial on Tuesday on three charges, including immigration offences and "swimming in a non-swimming area".

It is unclear what Webb aims to achieve. The US embassy in Burma has little knowledge of his plans and says all arrangements were made by his office in Washington.

Relations between Burma and the US have been strained since its military crushed pro-democracy protests in 1988.

Washington is Burma's strongest critic, applying political and economic sanctions against the junta for its poor human rights record and failure to hand over power to a democratically elected government. This week's sentencing of democracy leader Suu Kyi and an American citizen at the same trial threatened to drag ties even lower.

But President Barack Obama's new ambassador for East Asia, Kurt Campbell, recently said the administration is interested in easing its policy of isolation. Webb, who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's East Asia and Pacific Affairs Subcommittee, has suggested that "affirmative engagement" would bring the most change to Burma, concerning those who think a hard line is the best approach.

In a letter to Webb, dissident groups warned the junta would use the senator's trip for its own ends.

"We are concerned that the military regime will manipulate and exploit your visit and propagandize that you endorse their treatment on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and over 2,100 political prisoners, their human rights abuses on the people of Burma, and their systematic, widespread and ongoing attack against the ethnic minorities," the letter said. Daw is a term of respect for older women in Myanmar.

Possibly reflecting a similar wariness, a spokesman for Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy said the party "has no interest in Jim Webb because he is not known to have any interest in Burma's affairs." He did not elaborate.

Official media, however, appeared to herald Webb's arrival. The nightly broadcast led with the visit, reporting that the senator met with Prime Minister Gen. Thein Sein yesterday, and returned to the subject several times during the night.

Suu Kyi has spent 14 of the last 20 years in detention. Her latest sentence on Tuesday came after an uninvited American citizen, John Yettaw, secretly swam to her house and spent two days there. Both Yettaw and Suu Kyi were found guilty of violating the terms of her house arrest. Yettaw received seven years in prison with hard labor.

Myanmar has been under military rule since 1962. The junta called elections in 1990 but refused to honor the results when Suu Kyi's party won overwhelmingly.