Burma: Virginia Senator Jim Webb Visits Junta Leader

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Dominique Aubert / Sygma / Corbis

Aung San Suu Kyi

The novels of U.S. Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) — the ex-Marine starting writing fiction long before he went to Washington — has depicted swashbuckling Americans seeking out thrilling adventures in exotic locales. Still even he might not have imagined a scenario in which the Vietnam-war-veteran-turned-politician jetted in on a U.S. military aircraft to the heavily fortified Burmese capital to meet with the reclusive leader of the country's ruling military junta. On Aug. 15, Webb, who serves as chair of the Senate Foreign Relation's subcommittee on East Asia and Pacific Affairs, became the first top-level American politician to meet with junta head Senior General Than Shwe.

The confab, which occurred in the recently constructed Burmese administrative capital of Naypyidaw, marked a momentous juncture in U.S.-Burma affairs. For more than a decade, Washington has maintained a virtual blackout on Burma relations, declining to assign an ambassador to the country and promoting a policy of economic isolation to keep its leaders from benefitting from trade ties. The Senator's visit could signal a softening of American strategy toward what has long been considered by the U.S. as a rogue state.

Webb also met with detained democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi. The inspirational leader of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), Suu Kyi was sentenced to 18 months of house arrest on Tuesday after a bizarre case in which an American swam to her lakeside villa in commercial capital Rangoon. According to the junta's judiciary logic, the appearance of an uninvited guest at the Nobel Peace Prize laureate's home meant that she had contravened the terms of her previous house arrest. (Suu Kyi has been locked up for 14 years of the past two decades.) This month's verdict ensures that Suu Kyi, whose NLD overwhelmingly won 1990 elections that the junta ignored, will have to sit out nationwide polls that the military regime has promised for next year.

Although Suu Kyi's sentencing met with the usual condemnation from Western powers, the United Nations on Thursday issued a relatively muted statement expressing "serious concern" for the 64-year-old's continued confinement. A previous draft that castigated the junta more strenuously did not survive opposition from Russia and China, which are generally loathe to comment on human-rights issues in other countries.

Webb's visit occurred at a moment when the Obama administration has been making noise about a possible shift in the U.S. position on Burma. During President George W. Bush's tenure, Washington strengthened economic sanctions against the Burmese regime, which has maintained an iron grip over the country since 1962, and ruled out any talk of engagement. But earlier this year Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged that such trade barriers weren't having an effect on the junta's behavior. (Shortly after the Suu Kyi verdict, the European Union announced the tightening of its own sanctions against the regime.) In the same way that it has re-engaged with North Korea in recent weeks, so, too, may the Obama Administration pursue a less isolationist stance toward Burma.

Nevertheless, the State Department has made it clear that Webb was not acting as an official emissary during his Burma trip. As speculation over the rationale for the Senator's trip grew, some Burma-watchers wondered whether Webb was traveling to Naypyidaw in order to secure the release of John Yettaw, the American who embarked on the midnight swim to Suu Kyi's home in May. Like Webb, Yettaw is a Vietnam-war veteran. Earlier this week, Yettaw was sentenced to seven years of hard labor by a Burmese court. Over the past decade, Westerners who have been handed harsh sentences by the Burmese judiciary have been released before their prison terms were completed. Indeed, in the hours following Webb's meeting with Than Shwe, the senator's office released a statement saying that the convicted American would be deported from Burma on Sunday. The twists and turns of Yettaw's case are stranger than that of any fiction — even that of Sen. Jim Webb's.