YANGON - U.S. senator Jim Webb said on Sunday he had asked Myanmar to free opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and let her take part in politics during talks that secured the release of an American jailed for visiting her.
The Democratic senator landed in Bangkok, capital of neighboring Thailand, with John Yettaw, whose swim to Suu Kyi's home in May led to her renewed detention after authorities said his uninvited stay had breached the terms of her house arrest.
He had had met junta leader Than Shwe at the remote new capital of Naypyidaw Saturday and then flown to Yangon to meet Suu Kyi at a guest house.
Suu Kyi was sentenced last week to another 18 months under house arrest, and Yettaw's action is widely seen as having given the junta a pretext to keep Suu Kyi out of politics until after an election due next year. Webb said he had raised the issue.
I'm hopeful as the months move forward they will take a look, he said.
With the scrutiny of the outside world judging their government very largely through how they are treating Aung San Suu Kyi, it's to their advantage that she's allowed to participate in the political process.
What I said to the leaders of Myanmar is that I believe that it will be impossible for the rest of the world to believe the elections were free and fair if she was not released.
He said the United States stood ready to help Myanmar.
Yettaw was not at the news conference. He went immediately to hospital after landing in Bangkok, where he walked from the plane to a waiting vehicle with a steadying hand from officials. He spent several days in hospital this month in Yangon.
Yettaw had been sentenced to seven years' hard labor on three charges, including immigration offences.
I believe what happened was regrettable, Webb said. He was trying to help. He's not a mean-spirited human being.
MEETINGS WITH OPPOSITION
Webb was allowed by the military authorities to speak with Suu Kyi for about 45 minutes Saturday, after meeting members of her National League for Democracy (NLD) and other political parties who had been invited to Naypyidaw by the government.
Some in Myanmar remained bitter at the treatment of Suu Kyi.
The most tangible outcome of his visit is the release of John Yettaw, who caused the mess, said Thakhin Chan Tun, a former ambassador to North Korea.
However, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who is completely innocent in this incident, is still under house arrest.
Suu Kyi has led the fight for democracy in the former Burma and has spent 14 of the past 20 years in detention.
U.S. President Barack Obama said her conviction violated universal principles of human rights and called for her release.
In May, Obama extended a ban on U.S. investment in Myanmar imposed in 1997 because of political repression. He has also renewed sanctions on imports from Myanmar.
Before Suu Kyi's trial ended, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held out the prospect of better relations but made that conditional, among other things, on the release of Suu Kyi and other political prisoners.
Webb, chairman of a Senate subcommittee on East Asia and the Pacific, is the first member of Congress to travel in an official capacity to Myanmar in more than a decade and the first senior American politician to meet junta leader Than Shwe.
A former Navy Secretary and a Vietnam War veteran who speaks Vietnamese, Webb favors a policy of engagement with the junta.
The United States has for years backed sanctions to persuade the generals to release political prisoners, to little effect.
Many Asian countries, including the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) of which Myanmar is a member, argue it is better to talk and trade with the resource-rich country, which occupies a strategic position between China and India.
Thailand is asking its fellow ASEAN members to back a request to Myanmar to pardon Suu Kyi.
(Writing by Alan Raybould; Editing by Kevin Liffey)