Saturday, August 15, 2009

Jim Webb Secures Release of American Prisoner In Myanmar

According to a statement released by his office, Jim Webb has negotiated the release of an American prisoner -- John Yettaw -- who was being held in Myanmar because he met with pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi.
U.S. Senator Jim Webb has finished up a two-day visit to Myanmar by obtaining the release of American prisoner John Yettaw and meeting with Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Webb, who on Saturday became the first American leader ever to meet with Myanmar President Than Shwe, raised both issues during his meeting. He also requested that the country’s leadership release Suu Kyi from her eighteen month sentence of house arrest following her recent conviction for violating the terms of her house arrest.

“I am grateful to the Myanmar government for honoring these requests,” noted Webb. “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 met with Suu Kyi for nearly an hour on Saturday afternoon. He described the meeting as “an opportunity for me to convey my deep respect to Aung San Suu Kyi for the sacrifices she has made on behalf of democracy around the world.”

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.
The story has been all over CNN and other news channels as many people rightfully believe that this is good news. Just like there was with President Clinton's trip to North Korea, however, there are some people who believe that this trip will legitimize the military leadership in Myanmar.
But in a letter to Webb, dissident groups warned the junta would use the senator's trip for its own ends.

"We are concerned that the military regime will manipulate and exploit your visit and propagandize that you endorse their treatment on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and over 2,100 political prisoners, their human rights abuses on the people of Burma, and their systematic, widespread and ongoing attack against the ethnic minorities," the letter said. Daw is a term of respect for older women in Myanmar.
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Possibly reflecting a similar wariness, a spokesman for Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy said the party "has no interest in Jim Webb because he is not known to have any interest in Myanmar affairs." He did not elaborate.
While I don't claim to be an expert on Myanmar affairs, I do know that part of the reason that I voted for Sen. Webb is his interest in foreign affairs. As is also evident by the fact that he chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's East Asia and Pacific Affairs Subcommittee, the region that is being discussed is one that he is especially interested in. So while I understand the fact that some activists are worried that the junta might use Webb's trip for propaganda, I think they're wrong to claim that Webb doesn't "have any interest in Myanmar affairs."

What the worry about Webb's trip really represents is the fact that there is still a lot of work that needs to be done in Myanmar. Since there was at least some positive accomplishments that came out of the meeting, Webb's visit could serve as a launching point for the US and other communities to increase their support for pro-Democracy supporters in Myanmar. In terms of our country's overall foreign policy, this is yet another example of how under the Obama Administration our leaders seem to be interested in pursuing diplomatic victory instead of the Bush Administration's desire to constantly go to war.

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