US Senator Webb to meet Myanmar leader

BANGKOK: Democratic Senator Jim Webb is due to meet Myanmar supremo Than Shwe later this week in the first-ever encounter between a senior US official and the junta strongman, Webb’s office said today.

The visit by Webb, who is close to US President Barack Obama, comes after the junta was widely condemned for extending democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest for another 18 months.

“Later this week, US Senator Jim Webb is scheduled to meet leaders at the highest levels of the national government in Burma (Myanmar), including Senior General Than Shwe,” a statement from Webb’s office said. “If the Shwe meeting takes place it will be the first time that a senior American official has ever met Burma’s top leader,” it said, noting also that no member of Congress has visited Myanmar in over a decade. One of the most high profile visits by a US official in recent years was that of William Berger, head of a US disaster assistance team, who delivered a planeload of aid to Yangon after Cyclone Nargis in May 2008.

Webb, who arrived in Laos today to kick off a two-week tour of Southeast Asia, is scheduled to visit Myanmar this weekend.

“It is vitally important that the United States re-engage with Southeast Asia at all levels,” Webb said in another statement announcing his arrival in the Lao capital Vientiane, where he was due to hold a press briefing later today.

Also convicted along with Suu Kyi was US citizen John Yettaw, who triggered her latest trial with a bizarre incident in May when he swam to her lakeside house in Yangon. The 54-year-old US military veteran, who is epileptic and diabetic, was sentenced to seven years of hard labour and imprisonment. Obama demanded Yettaw’s immediate release, along with Suu Kyi’s and that of thousands of political prisoners held in Myanmar’s notorious jails ahead of elections scheduled for next year.

Webb — a hard-nosed Vietnam War veteran who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on East Asia and Pacific affairs — was also to visit Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia over his two-week tour.

Myanmar researcher David Mathieson of Human Rights Watch said it was “significant” that Than Shwe had agreed to meet Webb, given the military ruler’s “distrust and xenophobia”.

“I think Than Shwe will probably appreciate Webb’s military background and his seniority,” he told AFP, but he warned “obviously Than Shwe will try and turn it to his advantage”.