American Politician Leaves Critics of Burma Regime Unimpressed

By Patrick Goodenough | August 17, 2009 | 4:32 AM EDT

Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) answers questions at a press conference in Bangkok, Thailand on Sunday, Aug. 16, 2009. (AP Photo)

( – One swam in, invited, while the other flew in and was permitted a 45-minute meeting, but as far as some Burma advocates are concerned neither the exploits of U.S. Sen. Jim Webb nor those of the now-freed American John Yettaw have brought opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi closer to freedom or the country closer to democracy.
Virginia Democrat Webb, who favors engagement rather than sanctions against the autocratic military regime, won Yettaw’s release at the weekend, and the two flew to neighboring Thailand on Sunday.
Webb did not secure freedom for Suu Kyi, but was allowed to visit her and said afterwards he had urged Burma’s leaders to end her house arrest. The fact that he met with her was in itself noteworthy: Just weeks ago, visiting U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was refused permission to do so.
Also significant was the fact Webb had an audience with 76-year-old Gen. Than Shwe – the first time the senior junta leader has met with an American politician.
Suu Kyi, who has been detained for almost 14 of the last 20 years, last week had her house arrest extended as a result of Yettaw’s bizarre visit to her lakeside home in May.

Freed American John Yettaw leaves the plane in Bangkok in this image taken from TV on Sunday Aug. 16, 2009. (AP Photo/APTN)

Yettaw, 53, who reportedly suffers from epilepsy and other medical problems, said he had swum to Suu Kyi’s house after having a vision that she was in danger of assassination.
For violating the conditions of her detention, Suu Kyi’s confinement at home was extended by 18 months while Yettaw was sentenced to seven years’ hard labor. The harsh ruling, handed down less than a week after former President Clinton secured the release of two American journalists jailed in North Korea, prompted speculation that the junta viewed Yettaw as a diplomatic pawn.
Many supporters of Suu Kyi suspected the Yettaw incident was engineered, or at least exploited, to give the regime a pretext for extending her shortly-to-have-expired house arrest beyond general elections early next year, preventing her from taking part.
Whatever the case, Webb’s mission gave the junta the opportunity to deport Yettaw and score political points at home and abroad.
“Basically, Webb showed up in Burma, appears to have pressured Aung San Suu Kyi, and brought a great deal of positive media coverage to the military regime,” Jeremy Woodrum, director of the Washington-based U.S. Campaign for Burma, said Sunday.
“There is nothing wrong with talking with Burma’s military regime and making it clear that we expect changes,” Woodrum said. “However, under present circumstances this visit was a clear victory for Burma’s military regime because Senator Webb shares the regime’s views on sanctions.
“The regime would be delighted to have an ally like Webb pressing Aung San Suu Kyi to give up pressure on the military regime.”
‘Roadmap to disciplined democracy’
Webb, chairman of a Senate subcommittee of East Asian affairs, argues sanctions against Burma have not worked and have driven the regime towards closer cooperation with neighboring China, whose investment in Burma has grown significantly in recent years.
He characterized his mission as a private and congressional one, and State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said he was “not carrying a specific message from the administration.”
But Crowley did mention that U.S. Embassy officials were accompanying Webb in his meetings – official involvement that was highlighted by the regime’s New Light of Myanmar newspaper.

Burma’s Deputy Foreign Minister U. Maung Myint escorts Sen. Jim Webb at Yangon International Airport before his departure on Sunday, Aug. 16, 2009. (AP Photo)

Webb met Than Shwe on Saturday in Naypyidaw, the junta’s purpose-built capital,  and was then allowed to visit Suu Kyi in the old capital and commercial center, Yangon (Rangoon), 200 miles to the south.
He told reporters in Bangkok after leaving Sunday that he had urged the regime to release Suu Kyi before next year’s election and hoped they would consider doing so in the months ahead.
“I believe that it will be impossible for the rest of the world to believe the elections were free and fair if she was not released,” Webb said.
The election is step five of the junta’s so called “seven step roadmap to disciplined democracy,” a program announced in 2003 and built around the drafting of a new constitution.
Critics said the document, drawn up by a military panel, was designed to perpetuate the power of the military, which has controlled Burma since 1962 and in 1990 overruled the result of elections won by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD).
The regime held a referendum on the constitution in May 2008, just days after Cyclone Nargis devastated parts of the country. It did not allow any campaigning for a “no” vote, and declared victory with 92.48 percent voter support.
In the Senate last June, Webb appeared to express conditional support for the new constitution.
“Assuming that Burma would honor the items that are in its proposed constitution, which move, however imperfectly, toward a multi-party systems and elections – open elections – I assume that would be supported [by the administration]?” he said during hearings for the nomination of Kurt Campbell as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. (Campbell sidestepped the question.)
‘He’s not the only senator’
The administration has been reviewing U.S. policy towards Burma, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said earlier this year neither engagement by its neighbors nor sanctions appear to have worked.
Still, President Obama late last month extended sanctions, which were due to expire, for another three years.
Woodrum of the U.S. Campaign for Burma expressed optimism that Obama would not “sell out Burma’s democracy movement.”
“Senator Webb has an influential position in the Senate, but he is not the only senator,” he said.
Woodrum praised Obama for extending the sanctions. “We hope he will heed the advice of many Nobel peace prize recipients and now seek a global arms embargo on the military regime, as France and the U.K. are urging.”
Walter Lohman, director of the Asia Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation, wrote last week that the State Department long ago ceded Burma policy to Congress, where support for sanctions is strong.
While Webb, a Vietnam War veteran and “a serious student of Southeast Asia,” should be commended for his military service and his commitment to the region, Lohman said, his “views on Burma are his own” and do not represent U.S. policy.
“Than Shwe, our adversaries, challengers, allies and friends should well take note.”
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow