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Sen. Jim Webb breaks the ice in Burma

The reclusive regime in Burma (Myanmar) is touting its newfound openness, but skeptics wonder whether Webb's rare visit will bring any democratic reform.

By Patrick WinnCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / August 17, 2009



Bangkok, Thailand

In a trip that finally cracked the Burmese junta's shell, a US senator secured access to a reclusive regime rumored to be seeking nuclear weaponry.

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Sen. Jim Webb (D) of Virginia this weekend secured face time with both Burma's top leader, Gen. Than Shwe, and Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy figurehead mostly locked up under house arrest since her 1990 election to the premiership – a victory rescinded by the military.

Given the military's penchant for secrecy, and its tight grip on Ms. Suu Kyi, both meetings are remarkable for having occurred. Senator Webb also secured the release of John Yettaw, a former US veteran who had been jailed until Sunday for swimming across a lake to Suu Kyi's villa in May. The hard-line junta is seeking to portray these as significant concessions, but it's too early to tell whether they will be a catalyst for talks aimed at easing US sanctions in exchange for real democratic reform and proof that Burma (Myanmar) is not pursuing nuclear weapons.

"To meet Suu Kyi and Than Shwe is a critical moment," says Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a research fellow at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. "We could even see some major change. The fact is, the US is now trying to be nice. The world's only superpower came down to Naypyidaw [Burma's capital]. Even [United Nations Secretary-General] Ban Ki-moon wasn't given a chance to meet Suu Kyi. But to secure John Yettaw is not a miracle. This man is no one."

Did Webb make progress?

If Webb, who says he did not go to Burma as an official envoy of the Obama administration, made great progress in pushing for democratic reforms in return for an easing of US sanctions during either sit-down, he is so far refusing to claim it.

In his talks with Than Shwe, heavy US sanctions against Burma were not discussed, "though obviously it's the elephant in the bedroom," Webb told reporters in Bangkok. They also failed to discuss Burma's rumored nuclear ambitions, even though the threat was singled out by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at a summit last month in Thailand.

Webb also has yet to share the junta's reaction to his request for Suu Kyi's release, a key goal of his trip. "I think we'll wait and see how their government reacts to this request," he said. "That's probably where we should leave it right now."

One tangible achievement

Webb's only tangible prize from the Burma trip was the release of Mr. Yettaw.

The junta is thought to have released Yettaw, an epileptic whose condition deteriorated in confinement, simply so he wouldn't die on their watch. His uninvited visit to Suu Kyi's home, a violation of Suu Kyi's house arrest, the junta claimed – extended her detainment by 18 months.

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