updated 8/14/2009 6:09:14 AM ET 2009-08-14T10:09:14

Days after the world slammed Myanmar for sentencing Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to more house arrest, U.S. Senator Jim Webb arrived in the military-ruled country's capital Friday.

The visit — the first in more than a decade by a senior U.S. official — has drawn criticism from activists who say it confers legitimacy on a brutal regime, but the Obama administration gave the Virginia Democrat its blessing.

Relations between Myanmar, also known as Burma, and the U.S. have been strained since its military crushed pro-democracy protests in 1988.

Washington is Myanmar's strongest critic, applying political and economic sanctions against the junta for its poor human rights record and failure to hand over power to a democratically elected government. And this week's sentencing of democracy leader Suu Kyi and an American citizen at the same trial threatened to drag ties even lower.

But President Barack Obama's new ambassador for East Asia, Kurt Campbell, recently said the administration is interested in easing its policy of isolation. Webb, who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's East Asia and Pacific Affairs Subcommittee, has suggested that "affirmative engagement" would bring the most change to Myanmar, concerning those who think a hard line is the best approach.

In a letter to Webb, who flew Friday in a U.S. military aircraft from Laos to Myanmar's administrative capital of Naypyitaw, dissident groups warned the junta would use the senator's trip for its own ends.

"We are concerned that the military regime will manipulate and exploit your visit and propagandize that you endorse their treatment on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and over 2,100 political prisoners, their human rights abuses on the people of Burma, and their systematic, widespread and ongoing attack against the ethnic minorities," the letter said. Daw is a term of respect for older women in Myanmar.

Meeting with Myanmar's leader
Possibly reflecting a similar wariness, a spokesman for Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy said the party "has no interest in Jim Webb because he is not known to have any interest in Myanmar affairs." He did not elaborate. Nevertheless, Webb is slated to meet several politicians from the NLD on Saturday.

Official media, however, appeared to herald Webb's arrival. The nightly broadcast led with the visit, reporting that the senator met with Prime Minister Gen. Thein Sein on Friday, and returned to the subject several times during the night.

On Saturday, Webb is to meet with Myanmar's leader, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, according to Myanmar officials who demanded anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media. He would be the first senior U.S. official to meet the reclusive junta leader.

Suu Kyi, who was sentenced to 18 months of additional house arrest on Tuesday, has spent 14 of the last 20 years in detention. Her latest sentence came after an uninvited American citizen, John Yettaw, secretly swam to her house and spent two days there. Both Yettaw and Suu Kyi were found guilty of violating the terms of her house arrest. Yettaw received seven years in prison with hard labor.

Myanmar has been under military rule since 1962. The junta called elections in 1990 but refused to honor the results when Suu Kyi's party won overwhelmingly.

More on: Suu Kyi | Jim Webb

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