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Asia-pacific

US senator to meet junta leader on landmark trip

Text by NEWS WIRES

Latest update : 2009-08-14

US Senator Jim Webb has arrived in Burma for landmark talks with military supremo Than Shwe (pictured centre) just days after pro-democracy opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was sentenced to a further 18 months of house arrest.

AFP - US Senator Jim Webb arrived in Myanmar Friday for historic talks with military supremo Than Shwe that could signal a shift in Washington's hardline policy towards the ruling junta, officials said.
  
The groundbreaking visit comes just days after the regime extended democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's house arrest, a move which drew fierce international criticism and an expression of "serious concern" from the UN Security Council.
  
Webb, a Democrat who is close to President Barack Obama, touched down in the junta's bunker-like capital Naypyidaw after flying in from Laos where he launched a two-week tour of the region on Thursday, Myanmar officials said.
  
"The Senior General will meet Jim Webb tomorrow," one local official said on condition of anonymity, adding that Webb is scheduled to travel to the commercial hub Yangon later Saturday, the official said.
  
Webb -- a hard-nosed Vietnam veteran who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on East Asia and Pacific affairs -- would be the first senior US official to meet the reclusive 76-year-old junta chief.
  
The US embassy in the commercial hub Yangon confirmed that Webb was due to arrive but said it had not received confirmation from the capital. Webb's office said on Thursday that he was due to meet Than Shwe.
  
Than Shwe ordered Nobel peace laureate Suu Kyi to serve another 18 months of house arrest on Tuesday after a court convicted her and an eccentric American man, John Yettaw, who swam to her lakeside home.
  
The move puts her out of the picture for elections promised by the ruling generals in 2010.
  
Diplomats have played down suggestions that Webb could win an amnesty for Yettaw, who was sentenced to seven years of hard labour and imprisonment.
  
But Webb's visit could herald a change in the tough US stance towards Myanmar after the Obama administration said earlier this year that it would review its policy on Myanmar.
  
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last month held out the carrot of possible investment if the junta frees Suu Kyi, although she warned that there were concerns over nuclear cooperation between North Korea and Myanmar.
  
In April, Webb himself said that the United States should take a new approach of "constructive" engagement with Myanmar with an aim of lifting sanctions.
  
But he said in July that the trial of Suu Kyi would make this task more difficult.
  
Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) said Myanmar authorities had invited four senior members of the party to Naypyidaw on Friday and they would travel to the capital in the afternoon.
  
"They invited them to meet with an important person. It is not clear whether it will be with Senior General Than Shwe or whether it is with the US senator, but we will find out when they get there," NLD spokesman Nyan Win said.
  
Nyan Win welcomed a UN Security Council statement expressing "serious concern" Thursday and hailed the European Union's decision to extend sanctions against the junta, including the judges in the trial.
  
"These moves show that the whole world wants justice for Daw Suu. We have the same attitude," said Nyan Win.
  
The White House Thursday welcomed Webb's visit, which is also the first by a member of Congress in more than a decade, saying he would convey "strong" US views of good governance to the junta's leaders.
  
Myanmar's state media said Friday that a decision by Than Shwe to commute the court's original sentence of three years' hard labour for Suu Kyi showed that the government was ready to respond too.
  
"Due to the term 'change' said by President Obama these days, that word is very popular all over the world," said an editorial in the government mouthpiece New Light of Myanmar newspaper.
  
"By issuing the directive, the (Myanmar) government has paced a giant step towards change."
  
Suu Kyi has been in detention for 14 of the last 20 years since the junta refused to recognise the NLD's victory in elections in 1990.
  

Date created : 2009-08-14

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