/ 15 August 2009

US senator in landmark talks with Burma’s junta

United States Senator Jim Webb began historic talks with Burma junta leader Than Shwe on Saturday, becoming the first senior Washington official to meet the head of the military regime, officials said.

The landmark encounter in Than Shwe’s bunker-like capital Naypyidaw comes just days after Burma authorities drew international condemnation by extending pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest.

In a surprise development, Webb could meet with Suu Kyi herself and with John Yettaw, an American man who sparked the Nobel laureate’s trial by swimming to her lakeside house in May, according to local officials.

”The US senator has started his meeting with the Senior General,” a Burma government official said on condition of anonymity after the talks. Details of their discussions were not immediately available.

Webb, a leading Democrat who is close to US President Barack Obama, also met some senior members of the 64-year-old Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) while in Naypyidaw, the officials said.

Suu Kyi and Yettaw were convicted by a court on Tuesday. Than Shwe commuted a prison sentence for Suu Kyi and ordered her to serve 18 more months under house arrest, but Yettaw was sentenced to seven years’ jail and hard labour.

Critics have accused the junta of trumping up the charges against Suu Kyi to keep her locked up during elections promised by the ruling generals in 2010, and of using the polls themselves to legitimise their grip on power.

After his talks in the remote administrative capital, tough-talking Vietnam War veteran Webb is due to fly later on Saturday to the commercial hub of Rangoon where Suu Kyi and Yettaw are being held.

The United Nations Security Council issued a watered-down statement on Thursday expressing ”serious concern” about her detention, while the European Union the same day extended sanctions against the junta, including the judges in the trial.

But the visit of Webb, who arrived in Burma on Friday as part of a two-week regional tour, could herald a potential shift in relations between the US and the regime on which it has imposed punishing sanctions.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last month offered the incentive of possible investment if the junta frees Suu Kyi, although she warned that there were concerns over nuclear cooperation between North Korea and Burma.

Webb was travelling with a US delegation that would meet the Union of Burma Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry in Rangoon, a Burma businessman said on condition of anonymity.

Burma’s worsening economic problems could pose difficulties for the regime, which faced mass demonstrations led by Buddhist monks in 2007 after a sudden increase in prices.

In April, Webb himself said the US should take a new approach of ”constructive” engagement with Burma with the aim of lifting sanctions. But he said in July that the trial of Suu Kyi would make this task more difficult.

Diplomats have played down suggestions that Webb — who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on East Asia and Pacific affairs — could win an amnesty for Yettaw during his visit.

But a Western diplomat in Rangoon said his talks with Than Shwe would likely include the discussion of terms on a possible deal to win some form of early release for the 54-year-old Missouri man.

Suu Kyi has been in detention for 14 of the last 20 years. The junta refused to recognise the NLD’s victory in the country’s last elections, in 1990. — AFP