American's release gives little hope for Suu Kyi
The release of a US prisoner could herald a softer stance by Myanmar's junta towards Aung San Suu Kyi, but she will almost certainly stay locked up for elections next year, analysts said.
The case of John Yettaw, who was given seven years hard labour for swimming to the democracy icon's house and freed after intervention by a US senator, shows that the hermit regime is making new diplomatic calculations, they said.
But with Yettaw having served his purpose in giving the generals an excuse to extend her house arrest for another 18 months, the move was unlikely to signal any wholesale change in Suu Kyi's conditions, they added.
"Suu Kyi won't be released ahead of 2010 elections, they'll want to get that out of the way," Ian Holliday, a Myanmar academic at the University of Hong Kong, told AFP.
"Letting Yettaw go without using him as a bargaining tool was a surprise to most people, so that's good, but given the total lack of contact over all these years a lot more bridge building needs to be undertaken," Holliday said.
Democrat Senator Jim Webb's visit came as Washington undertakes a review of its policy on ties with Myanmar, which have been frozen for years amid a tight sanctions regime renewed by President Barack Obama in May.
In an unprecedented step, the senator met reclusive junta leader Than Shwe -- and he succeeded where even UN chief Ban Ki-moon had failed by managing to secure a meeting with Suu Kyi herself.
Webb later said he was "hopeful" the junta would consider allowing Suu Kyi to participate in elections due in 2010, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently dangled the carrot of business links if the regime frees her.
Webb also hailed its decision to release Yettaw as a step towards thawing ties.
"It's something. They want to engage with the US and they want to reduce international pressure," said Win Min, an academic based in northern Thailand who fled Myanmar during a crackdown on activists in 1988.
Win Min said the junta might decide to revive short-lived talks with Suu Kyi which began after mass demonstrations led by Buddhist monks in 2007 when the ruling generals appointed a minister to liaise with her.
"I think the way it could go is that they talk to her rather than release her, to buy time," he said.
The junta has regularly changed its handling of Suu Kyi's popularity over the years -- at times pretending she does not exist and at others launching propaganda campaigns to sully her name.
She has been detained for 14 of the last 20 years, since the year before her National League for Democracy won Myanmar's last elections in 1990, a result the regime refused to recognise.
Suu Kyi's immediate fate looks more likely to involve a relaxation of the rules of her detention rather than her immediate freedom, said a Western diplomat in Yangon, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"I'm convinced that until the elections they will not let her free to campaign. This is the red line that they have set," the diplomat told AFP.
"But it seems there will be a more relaxed rules structure than before. The authorities have said that some further visits could be authorised."
But any changes will be marginal before the national polls that are being heralded by the military as the culmination of their seven step "Roadmap to Democracy", that could presage greater engagement abroad.
Western governments and rights groups have derided the process as a sham designed to legitimise the military's continued rule.