YANGON (Reuters) - U.S. Senator Jim Webb met Myanmar top military leader Than Shwe and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Saturday and announced the release of an American jailed for visiting the Nobel peace laureate.
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 guest house arranged by government officials in Yangon.
Webb’s office later released a statement saying American John Yettaw, who was sentenced to seven years hard labor by Myanmar’s military government, would be released.
A Myanmar court sentenced Suu Kyi to another 18 months of house arrest for violating a security law after Yettaw swam uninvited across a lake to her home in May. Yettaw was sentenced to prison in a parallel trial on three charges, including immigration offenses.
“I am grateful to the Myanmar government for honoring these requests,” said Webb who is visiting Myanmar and sought Yettaw’s release. He also asked the country’s leadership to release Suu Kyi.
“It is my hope that we can take advantage of these gestures as a way to begin laying a foundation of goodwill and confidence-building in the future.”
Webb, chairman of a Senate subcommittee on East Asia and Pacific, is the first member of Congress to travel in an official capacity to Myanmar in more than a decade. He has been described as the first senior American official ever to meet Than Shwe.
“Yettaw will be officially deported from Myanmar on Sunday morning. Senator Webb will bring him out of the country on a military aircraft that is returning to Bangkok on Sunday afternoon,” a statement from the senator’s office said.
In Washington, White House spokesman Michael Hammer said, “we’ve seen the reports of Senator Webb’s visit to Burma and are keeping up with the developments, including the impending release of American citizen John Yettaw.”
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 Myanmar dissident groups expressed unhappiness about the timing of his visit.
The Obama administration, which had earlier indicated it was reviewing its policy toward Myanmar, has denounced Suu Kyi’s conviction.
The United States has for years tried to use sanctions to persuade the generals to release political prisoners. Asian nations have argued it is better to engage the junta than to isolate a resource-rich country situated between India and China.
Webb supports a pro-engagement policy with the junta. Webb’s office said on August 6 that he would travel to five countries in Southeast Asia on a two-week mission “to explore opportunities to advance U.S. interests in Burma (Myanmar) and the region.”
Earlier on Saturday, the U.S. senator also met three representatives of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party in Naypyidaw. He was due to end his three-day visit on Sunday.
Webb is a former U.S. Navy Secretary and a Vietnam War veteran who speaks Vietnamese.
Reporting by Aung Hla Tun; Writing by Vithoon Amorn; Editing by Chris Wilson and Bill Tarrant