Image: John Yettaw of Falcon, Missouri
AP
John Yettaw of Falcon, Mo., steps from a U.S. government plane as he arrives in Bangkok on Sunday.   
updated 8/16/2009 11:53:12 AM ET 2009-08-16T15:53:12

An American man imprisoned in Myanmar for sneaking into the home of detained democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi flew out of the country Sunday after a visiting U.S. senator won his release.

John Yettaw of Falcon, Missouri, arrived in Bangkok on a U.S. government plane with Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, who secured his freedom Saturday with a plea to Myanmar's ruling military junta.

Webb's visit to Myanmar was the first by a member of the U.S. Congress in more than a decade, and could presage a new approach by Washington toward the military government, which it has shunned.

A pale and haggard-looking Yettaw smiled as he left the small plane and flashed sign language for "I love you" to waiting reporters but did not respond to questions.

Yettaw, 53, was convicted last week of breaking the terms of Suu Kyi's house arrest by swimming to her lakeside home in early May and staying for two days.

Webb was also allowed a rare meeting with Suu Kyi, who is tightly restricted in her house arrest.

His meeting Saturday with the junta's chief, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, was the first time the reclusive general has met with a senior U.S. political figure.

Webb said he also asked Myanmar's military rulers to release Suu Kyi, 64, a long-standing demand of the United States and much of the international community.

"I am hopeful that the relations between the United States and Myanmar will move forward and that the government will consider strongly" the request, Webb told reporters before leaving Myanmar.

But some of the junta's critics charged that Webb's trip will hurt the cause of democracy in Myanmar, which has been under military control since 1962. Yettaw's action was widely seen as giving the junta a legal pretext to keep Suu Kyi detained through general elections set for next year.

Years of house arrest
Suu Kyi, who has been detained for 14 of the last 20 years, was sentenced by a court to three years in prison with hard labor for violating her house arrest as a result of Yettaw's intrusion, but the punishment was reduced to 18 months of house arrest by Than Shwe. Two female companions who live with her received the same sentence.

Yettaw was also convicted of an immigration violation and of swimming in a restricted zone, and received a total of seven years in prison with hard labor. He reportedly suffers from diabetes, epilepsy and asthma and was hospitalized for a week during the trial after suffering seizures.

Webb said in Bangkok that Yettaw had suffered another medical problem in Yangon on Sunday morning but did not give details.

Yettaw has said he made the visit to Suu Kyi's house because he had a vision that she was at risk of harm from assassins.

"I believe he was probably motivated by good intentions but he committed a very serious violation in this country," Webb said in Yangon. "It was a good gesture from your country to our country for humanitarian reasons to allow him to return to his family."

Yettaw has been held in Insein, Myanmar's largest prison, which is notorious for torture and other abuses of both political prisoners and ordinary criminals. But his lawyer has said his client was well-treated.

"If it's true, of course I'm extremely happy and we're ecstatic," Yettaw's wife, Betty, told The Associated Press on Saturday, referring to reports her husband would be freed.

Webb was eager to promote better relations with Myanmar.

"I have long believed that if certain obstacles are removed, there is a natural friendship between the U.S. and the people of this country, and it is toward that end I came here and I will be working toward that solution," he said.

Washington has been a leader in isolating the military regime, imposing strong 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.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, on a trip through Asia in February, addressed the administration's dilemma with Myanmar, also called Burma. She said neither tough U.S. sanctions nor engagement by neighbors had persuaded the junta to embrace democracy or release Suu Kyi.

"I don't think Sen. Webb can be proud for the release of Mr. John Yettaw, while our leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who is the real victim of this conspiracy and injustices, and two women colleagues, are still under detention," said Aung Din of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, a Washington-based group. Daw is a term of respect used for older women.

"This will surely make a negative impression among the people of Burma. They will think that Americans are easy to satisfy with the dictators when they get their citizens back," he said.

More on Myanmar | Aung San Suu Kyi

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