Sen. Jim Webb secures release of jailed American, meets with junta leader and Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar

McDermid is a special correspondent.

Virginia Sen. Jim Webb won the release of an American prison inmate in Myanmar on Saturday, a day in which he held rare face-to-face talks with reclusive leader Senior Gen. Than Shwe and also an unusual meeting with jailed pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The American, Missouri resident John Yettaw, 53, was arrested in May and sentenced to seven years in prison, including four years of hard labor, after swimming across a lake to Suu Kyi’s villa.

The Democratic senator’s visit to Yangon came just days after a military court ruled that Suu Kyi was guilty of violating the terms of her house arrest by harboring the uninvited Yettaw.


The prisoner will be deported to the United States today and fly out with Webb on a military plane, according to a statement from the senator’s office.

Webb, a highly decorated Vietnam veteran and former secretary of the Navy, chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s East Asian and Pacific affairs subcommittee.

The military government’s high level of accommodation for Webb comes against a backdrop of harsh international criticism of its treatment of Suu Kyi and a rash of alleged human rights abuses.

President Obama recently renewed wide-ranging sanctions against Myanmar on trade, investment and natural resources.

Webb is at the forefront of a pro-engagement camp that says talking to the long-ruling generals of Myanmar, also known as Burma, will bring about political reform more rapidly than economic sanctions that end up punishing the impoverished population.

“America can make a huge difference in moving Burma towards a better future, but it can’t just cut off trade, make statements from 10,000 miles away and hope for the best. It has to talk directly to the Burmese generals, and engage the country as a whole,” said author and historian Thant Myint-U. “Sen. Webb’s trip could be a big step in the right direction.”


Members of the pro-democracy opposition and international rights groups have called for stiffer sanctions against the military government for what they see as the unlawful detention of Suu Kyi and more than 2,000 other reported political prisoners.

Khin Ohmar, chair of the Network for Democracy and Development (Burma), points out that it is extremely difficult to meet with Than Shwe, an autocrat who generally hosts only friends and allies. And last month, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was unable to gain a meeting with Suu Kyi.

“John Yettaw being out is good. We don’t want to see anyone spend seven years in a Burmese prison. But what is the hidden cost?” Ohmar said.

“What is there between Webb and Than Shwe?”

Others in the pro-democracy opposition are concerned that Webb’s visit will be seen as a reward for the military government in the face of calls for tougher action by some Western governments, the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations and the U.N. Historian Thant rejects such supposition.

“We have to get away from the silly notion that a visit by a senior American is some great reward. They are talking to Sen. Webb because he’s the first senior official to come to Burma and talk directly to them,” Thant said.

“They know they can survive as a client state of China’s. They want to know what other options they have.”