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photo: AP / MRTV via APTN
JUSTIN McCURRY / Irish Times | THE FIRST visit to Burma by a senior US official for more than a decade has triggered speculation that the Obama administration will attempt to steer the regime towards a new era of engagement.

Jim Webb, a Democratic senator from Virginia, arrived in Burma yesterday, days after the country’s junta sentenced the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi to 18 months’ house arrest.

Senator Webb, who served in the Reagan administration but is now considered a close ally of Barack Obama, is expected to meet the country’s leader, Than Shwe, in the country’s remote capital, Naypyidaw, today.

The outcome of his visit – part of a five-nation tour of Asia – is expected to influence the White House as it considers new approaches to the problem of Burma’s appalling record on human rights.

“If the meeting takes place it will be the first time that a senior American official has ever met with Burma’s top leader,” Senator Webb’s office said in a statement.

Given his public support for a policy of engagement with Burma’s generals, Senator Webb’s visit could be the precursor to a break by Mr Obama with the more punitive approach favoured by Britain and the EU.

That Than Shwe has agreed to a meeting suggests that a slight thaw in relations – soured by the Aung San Suu Kyi trial – is not out of the question.

The senator, a former boxer and marine who served in Vietnam, is expected to request a meeting with the Burmese opposition leader, who began her latest period of detention at her Rangoon mansion on Tuesday.

He is also expected to demand the release of John Yettaw, an American whose unauthorised visit to Aung San Suu Kyi’s lakeside mansion in May triggered the trial. The 53-year-old from Missouri was given seven years of hard labour amid concerns over his health.

It is unlikely that Senator Webb’s requests will be granted, however. “It is impossible that Mr Yettaw will be sent back with the visiting senator,” his lawyer, Khin Maung Oo, said. “I think my client will finally be deported, but not immediately.”

Senator Webb drew criticism from three Burmese dissident groups, which expressed amazement that the visit came so soon after the verdict against Aung San Suu Kyi.

In an open letter to the senator, the All Burma Monks’ Alliance, the 88 Generation Students, and the All Burma Federation of Student Unions wrote: “We are concerned that the military regime will manipulate and exploit your visit.”

Suggestions that the Obama administration might be about to relax sanctions introduced in 1990 – the year the junta ignored the opposition’s election victory – prompted an angry response from several prominent US politicians earlier this year.

In a letter to the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, 17 congressmen said Than Shwe’s regime “continues to perpetuate crimes against humanity and war crimes so severe that Burma has been called ‘Southeast Asia’s Darfur’”.

But Senator Webb, who chairs the Senate foreign relations sub-committee on East Asia and Pacific affairs, countered that years of sanctions and condemnation had failed. He said: “What I think we should be doing in Burma is trying to open up diplomatic avenues where you can have confidence builders . . . and through that process work toward some way where you can remove sanctions.”

Last month, Mrs Clinton suggested that the US might be willing to soften its stance in return for Aung San Suu Kyi’s freedom. – (Guardian service)

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