U.S. Senator Jim Webb made significant inroads on his visit to Burma Saturday, meeting separately with the head of Burma's ruling military government and the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Senator Webb also secured the release of an American jailed for visiting Aung San Suu Kyi.
Within hours of holding talks with Burma's leader General Than Shwe in the administrative capital Naypyitaw, Senator Jim Webb flew to Rangoon and met with democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi at a government guest house.
The unprecedented access to Aung San Suu Kyi comes just days after her house arrest was extended to another 18 months. She was convicted Tuesday of violating the terms of her house arrest after American John Yettaw swam uninvited to her lakeside villa in May and stayed for two days.
Webb secured the release of Yettaw, who had been sentenced to seven years in prison. Yettaw will leave Burma Sunday for Thailand together with the senator.
In a statement, Webb said he is grateful to Burma's government for honoring those requests. He says he hopes the U.S. and Burma could "take advantage of these gestures as a way to begin laying a foundation of goodwill and confidence-building in the future."
Senator Webb became the first senior U.S. official to meet with the reclusive General Than Shwe. The Democrat senator is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on East Asia and Pacific Affairs. He has publicly expressed support for diplomacy, aimed at eventually lifting U.S. sanctions on Burma.
Both the White House and the State Department say Webb is not carrying any specific message from U.S. President Barack Obama.
Debbie Stothard, coordinator of the rights group, Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma in Bangkok says it is still unclear whether real political reforms in Burma will follow.
"General Than Shwe would have welcomed Senator Webb as an ally because Senator Webb has taken a public stand against US sanctions against the regime," she said. "He would have gone out of his way to grant Senator Webb a meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi."
"If we really want to see change, if we really want to see Senator Webb making a change on Burma, we've got to see the release of political prisoners and cessation of military hostilities against ethnic nationality groups," she added.
Senator Webb also met with Prime Minister Thien Sein, Foreign Minister Nyan Win, the chairman of the State Constitution Drafting Commission Aung Toe and representatives from political parties, including Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy and state-affiliated social organizations.
Webb's visit has raised speculation of a policy shift in Washington toward the repressive state. The White House said prior to the meeting that Webb would convey "strong" U.S. views on Burma's political future.
Last month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the release of Aung San Suu Kyi would open doors for an expansion in bilateral ties and U.S. investments in Burma. The U.S. has imposed economic sanctions on Burma's government, including an investment ban, because of the government's repressive policies.