The era of isolating Myanmar may be over, said Andrew Buncombe in the London Independent. Last week, Sen. Jim Webb became the first top U.S. official to meet Than Shwe, the head of Myanmar’s ruling military junta. The Virginia Democrat traveled to the repressive, isolated country to win the release of an American, John Yettaw, who had been sentenced to seven years in prison. Yettaw, a Vietnam vet with a history of mental instability, swam uninvited across a lake to the home of Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who violated her house arrest by allowing the sopping and exhausted man to come in and rest. The junta used the incident as an excuse to extend her detention another 18 months, which means she won’t be able to run in next May’s elections. But it did relent on Yettaw, allowing him to leave the country. Webb, an advocate of easing sanctions against Myanmar, said the release was a sign that the junta could change. “It is my hope that we can take advantage of these gestures as a way to begin laying a foundation of goodwill and confidence-building in the future,” Webb said.
Webb took a big risk, said Paul Harris and Mark Townsend in the London Observer. Many conservatives in the U.S. criticized Bill Clinton’s recent trip to North Korea to free two American hostages there, saying the visit lent legitimacy to a brutal regime. Some Burmese activists were similarly skeptical. They sent Webb a letter expressing concern “that the military regime will manipulate and exploit your visit and propagandize that you endorse” its rule. But Webb also managed to visit Suu Kyi, a feat that “may help to mollify” critics. The visit called direct attention to her plight, and Webb used the opportunity to repeat several times that next year’s elections will not be considered free or fair if Suu Kyi is not allowed to participate. Suu Kyi has been detained for most of the past two decades, ever since her party won the 1990 elections and the junta annulled the vote.
Webb blames China for propping up the junta, said Brian McCartan in the Hong Kong Asia Times. Speaking in Thailand after Yettaw’s release, Webb implied “that increased Chinese influence in Myanmar is dangerous both to the country and the larger region.” International sanctions against Myanmar’s main export, gemstones, don’t work because the junta simply routes its exports through China. “It’s clear to most that Webb and the Obama administration have larger realpolitik goals of containing China in mind.”
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That was Webb’s true agenda in Asia, said Greg Torode in the Hong Kong South China Morning Post. His visit to Myanmar was just one stop on an 11-day tour of the region, part of an effort for the U.S. to, in Webb’s words, “re-engage with Southeast Asia at all levels.” The Bush administration had largely ignored the region, which means that now Obama “must play catch-up with China.” Laos, for example, has practically become a Chinese satellite. Webb made that tiny nation his first stop and met with numerous officials there, suggesting that the U.S. would make a bid to woo Laos with U.S. investment. The battle between Beijing and Washington for influence in Asia is just beginning.
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