Sen. Webb wins release of US prisoner in Burma. Now what?

Unemployed veteran John Yettaw, who was imprisoned for sneaking into democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi’s home in Burma, arrived in Bangkok, Thailand on Sunday.

John Yettaw sat in a vehicle Sunday after he arrived in Bangkok on a US government plane.

BANGKOK, THAILAND – It has been a whirlwind summer for John Yettaw, the unemployed veteran from Missouri imprisoned for swimming across a lake and sneaking into democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi’s home in Burma (Myanmar).

Days ago, Mr. Yettaw faced seven years of hard labor, a frightening fate in the junta-controlled backwater. But by Sunday, he was back in US-friendly Thailand with Sen. Jim Webb (D) of Virginia, who led a surprise diplomatic mission on Yettaw's behalf.

Yettaw’s nightmare is over. But he has left much aggravation in his wake, namely among supporters of Ms. Suu Kyi across the globe.

They’re left to wonder why their Nobel Peace Prize-winning idol is left in confinement and this religious enthusiast, who reportedly swam to her house in makeshift flippers to convert her to Mormonism, has walked away. His interference gave the junta, intent on keeping democracy figurehead Suu Kyi locked up, an easy pretext to extend her house arrest by 18 months.

Senator Webb could make the case that Yettaw offered an opportunity for face time with the junta (he held a rare meeting with top leader Senior Gen. Than Shwe on Saturday), especially as the White House appears to be warming to negotiations with the notoriously hardline military regime. The repressive junta reportedly has signaled that it may back off rumored nuclear ambitions if some US sanctions are lifted.

Mr. Webb told reporters in Bangkok that he was not acting as an official envoy of the administration. “I believe what happened was regrettable," he said, referring to what happened to Yettaw. "He was trying to help. He’s not a mean-spirited human being.”

Though Suu Kyi's supporters are likely glad she was granted a rare meeting with a US senator, the visit has left behind mixed feelings, especially in the next few days, as the media runs images of Yettaw walking free and Webb recounts his meeting with junta leader Gen. Than Shwe, a modern dictator in the Western world’s eyes.

Did Webb's visit win any significant concessions from the junta? Will it accomplish anything in terms of opening dialogue toward real democratic reform in exchange for the US easing sanctions?

We’ll have more insight tomorrow, likely from the senator himself, who remains in Thailand as he continues a diplomatic spin through Southeast Asia.

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