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Sen. Jim Webb breaks the ice in Burma

The reclusive regime in Burma (Myanmar) is touting its newfound openness, but skeptics wonder whether Webb's rare visit will bring any democratic reform.

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In a trip that finally cracked the Burmese junta's shell, a US senator secured access to a reclusive regime rumored to be seeking nuclear weaponry.

Sen. Jim Webb (D) of Virginia this weekend secured face time with both Burma's top leader, Gen. Than Shwe, and Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy figurehead mostly locked up under house arrest since her 1990 election to the premiership – a victory rescinded by the military.

Given the military's penchant for secrecy, and its tight grip on Ms. Suu Kyi, both meetings are remarkable for having occurred. Senator Webb also secured the release of John Yettaw, a former US veteran who had been jailed until Sunday for swimming across a lake to Suu Kyi's villa in May. The hard-line junta is seeking to portray these as significant concessions, but it's too early to tell whether they will be a catalyst for talks aimed at easing US sanctions in exchange for real democratic reform and proof that Burma (Myanmar) is not pursuing nuclear weapons.

"To meet Suu Kyi and Than Shwe is a critical moment," says Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a research fellow at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. "We could even see some major change. The fact is, the US is now trying to be nice. The world's only superpower came down to Naypyidaw [Burma's capital]. Even [United Nations Secretary-General] Ban Ki-moon wasn't given a chance to meet Suu Kyi. But to secure John Yettaw is not a miracle. This man is no one."

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