Sen. James Webb met with top officials in the hard-line military government of Myanmar on Saturday and arranged for the release of an American prisoner there, part of a mission that may open the door to further U.S. engagement, according to senior Obama administration officials.
Accompanied by U.S. Embassy officials, Webb, D-Va., traveled to the remote Myanmar administrative capital of Naypyidaw to hold rare talks with the country’s leader, Gen. Than Shwe. He also paid an hour-long visit to Nobel laureate and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is under house arrest. He was told that Myanmar would allow John Yettaw, 54, sentenced last week to seven years for intruding on Suu Kyi’s heavily guarded home, to leave the country with him today.
The agreement to free Yettaw, of Falcon, Mo., follows North Korea’s release of two American journalists to former President Bill Clinton during a visit to Pyongyang earlier this month. Michael A. Hammer, a spokesman for the National Security Council, Saturday described both trips as “private, humanitarian missions unlinked to our policies.”
But a senior official said the administration sees the two visits in starkly different terms. Although Clinton was briefed by the administration before his trip, and he is expected to provide valuable firsthand information about it in a formal debriefing this week, he “has no job in the government,” the official said.
Moreover, the primary purpose of Clinton’s trip was to win the release of the women who had been detained.
The release of Yettaw, by contrast, was “serendipitous,” the senior official said, adding that Webb went to Myanmar “to have substantive conversations” as the head of the Senate’s Foreign Relations subcommittee for East Asia and Pacific affairs. Webb “wasn’t given instructions” in administration briefings before his departure, the official said, but is “familiar with our thinking.”