Myanmar freed an ailing American whom it had sentenced to seven years of hard labor and handed him to an influential U.S senator on Sunday, a move that could help persuade Washington to soften its hardline policy against the military regime.
Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, who secured John Yettaw’s freedom, said he believes years of sanctions have failed to move the Southeast Asian country toward democratic reforms or talks with detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Webb said he would discuss his conclusions and recommendations with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and others on his return to Washington. He declined to speculate on what the Obama administration — which is reviewing its policy toward Myanmar — would do. Webb can rally support for changes to U.S. policy in Asia as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s East Asia and Pacific Affairs Subcommittee.
Webb flew with Yettaw to Bangkok on Sunday afternoon. Yettaw had been held at Insein Prison in Myanmar’s biggest city Yangon since his arrest in early May.
The 53-year-old American was apprehended as he swam away from Suu Kyi’s lakeside residence, where he had sheltered for two days after sneaking in uninvited. He was convicted last week of breaking the terms of Suu Kyi’s house arrest and related charges, and sentenced to seven years in prison with hard labor.
Suu Kyi, who has been detained for 14 of the last 20 years, was herself sentenced to three years in prison with hard labor for violating her house arrest conditions through Yettaw’s visit, although that was reduced to 18 months under house arrest by order of junta chief, Senior Gen. Than Shwe.
Observers widely believe Yettaw’s intrusion into Suu Kyi’s home gave the junta a legal pretext to keep the Nobel laureate incarcerated through next year’s general election. Yettaw testified that he had a vision that Suu Kyi was at risk from assassins, and visited her to warn her.
A pale and haggard-looking Yettaw had to be assisted as he walked off the small plane on arrival in Bangkok. He smiled and flashed ‘I love you’ in sign language to waiting reporters. He did not respond to questions.
In the United States, Yettaw’s family said he has been hospitalized in Bangkok.
His ex-wife, Yvonne, said she had spoken to his current wife, Betty Yettaw, of Camdenton, Missouri, who said she spoke with her husband in Bangkok.
"He told her he was not treated as well as everyone there and in the press had been saying," Yvonne Yettaw, of Palm Springs, California, said.
She said Betty told her they were just running tests in the Bangkok hospital, but did not know what for. "But he is not in good health," Yvonne Yettaw said.
Yvonne Yettaw also said the family has to pay for his ticket home and there have been some complications trying to schedule a flight, so it is unclear when he will be returning to the U.S.
Myanmar state television said Sunday night that Yettaw, from Falcon, Missouri, was freed on humanitarian grounds because of his health. He reportedly suffers from diabetes, epilepsy and asthma and was hospitalized for a week during the trial after suffering seizures.
The Democrat lawmaker said at a press conference in Bangkok that Yettaw’s release "was a gesture from the government of Myanmar that we should be grateful for and hopefully build upon."
He said years of Western sanctions had denied Myanmar’s people "the kind of access to the outside world that is essential to their economic and political growth."
Washington has been a leader in isolating the military regime, imposing political and economic sanctions because of its poor human rights record and failure to turn over power to Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party after it won a landslide victory in 1990 elections.
Clinton, on a trip through Asia in February, said neither tough U.S. sanctions nor engagement by neighbors had persuaded the junta to embrace democracy or release Suu Kyi. The junta has been able to shrug off the sanctions in large part because of support from China.
David Steinberg, a Myanmar specialist at Georgetown University in Washington, described Webb’s visit as a "very important" first step.
"Of course, to see a change in U.S. policy, the junta would have to make significant reforms," he said, adding that this would happen immediately.
He said Washington’s reaching-out to the junta followed approaches by the Obama administration to several states previously considered pariahs, such as North Korea and Iran. He said he was one of several international affairs experts consulted by Obama’s team to present alternative views.
During last year’s presidential campaign, Obama said he would be willing to talk to anybody without preconditions, referring to nations with whom the Bush administration had refused to hold discussions. Bush ceased previous U.S. efforts to engage Pyongyang to win its agreement to stop developing nuclear weapons, and likewise gave Tehran, also seeking nuclear strike capacity, the cold shoulder.
Obama has sought to engage Tehran after a nearly three-decade estrangement, declaring a willingness to talk with its theocratic regime. He has also allowed former President Bill Clinton to reopen lines of communications to North Korea with a high profile visit to obtain the release of two American journalists jailed for illegally entering the country.
Critics of Myanmar’s military regime expressed disappointment at the latest developments.
Aung Din of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, a Washington-based pro-democracy group, said Yettaw’s release was a gift to Webb from Than Shwe for opposing sanctions, and promoting engagement and increased U.S. business activities there.
"This will surely make a negative impression among the people of Burma," he wrote in an e-mail "They will think that Americans are easy to satisfy with the dictators when they get their citizens back."
Webb was allowed a rare meeting with Suu Kyi, and said he had asked the junta to release her — a long-standing demand of the United States and much of the international community.
The meeting Saturday between Webb and Than Shwe was the reclusive general’s first with a senior U.S. political figure.
Webb said he was hopeful that over time the junta would realize "it is to their advantage to allow (Suu Kyi) to participate in the political process."
Associated Press Writer Maria Sudekum Fisher in Kansas City, Missouri, contributed to this report.