/ 16 August 2009

Burma frees American, Suu Kyi still detained

John Yettaw’s bizarre adventures in Burma ended on Sunday thanks to a United States senator — but the woman he was on a ”mission from God” to save remains locked up because of his actions.

The diabetic, epileptic father-of-seven found himself at the centre of both Aung San Suu Kyi’s two-decade long struggle with Burma’s military junta and also of a possible shift in Washington’s policy towards the regime.

Sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment and hard labour on Tuesday for swimming to her home, the 54-year-old flew out five days later after US Senator Jim Webb unexpectedly persuaded military chief Than Shwe to deport him.

Police arrested Yettaw climbing out of Rangoon’s Inye Lake on May 6, sporting a pair of homemade flippers and carrying an amateur ”spy kit” that included a flashlight, pliers, a camera and two $100 bills.

Photographs the heavy-set Yettaw had taken of himself before his ill-fated adventure showed him wearing his flippers and a short-sleeved shirt while staring intensely into the lens.

It later emerged that he had been to Suu Kyi’s crumbling villa once before, in November 2008, when he walked along a lakeside drain and left a copy of the Book of Mormon at her house before escaping.

Lawyers for Suu Kyi initially branded Yettaw a ”fool” because his actions gave the military regime an excuse to keep the Nobel Peace Prize winner locked up during elections due next year.

Conspiracy theories sprang up — both from activists and the junta — about who, if anybody, was backing him, particularly as he was caught just days before the latest period of Suu Kyi’s house was due to expire.

Yettaw went on hunger strike after his arrest, which resulted in a series of epileptic fits that saw him hospitalised in early August, delaying the verdict in his and Suu Kyi’s trial.

They were finally convicted on August 12, with Yettaw sentenced to three years for breaching security laws, three years for immigration violations and one year for a municipal charge of illegal swimming.

Suu Kyi in turn was sentenced to three years for violating the terms of her house arrest, though Than Shwe signed an order allowing her to serve just half that time, under house arrest.

But a picture eventually emerged of Yettaw as a tragic figure on a spiritual quest, a devout Mormon who sought redemption after his teenage son was killed riding a motorcycle that Yettaw bought as a present.

”He’s a very sincere and pious person,” Yettaw’s lawyer Khin Maung Oo told Agence France-Presse.

Yettaw said he had experienced a divine vision that ”terrorists” would assassinate the democracy icon and wanted to warn her.

”Yettaw said he came here because God asked him to,” Nyan Win, one of Suu Kyi’s lawyers, quoted him as telling the trial in May.

”In his vision, the terrorists assassinated Aung San Suu Kyi and then they put the blame for the assassination on the government, so that’s why he came here, to warn both of them,” he said.

The story behind this vision revealed a lost soul with a difficult past.

Military records showed that Yettaw spent a short time in the US military in the 1970s, though Yettaw told Burma authorities that he was a Vietnam veteran with a history of post-traumatic stress disorder.

His US neighbours described Yettaw — who lived in a trailer home, was married four times and had a history of drinking problems — as something of a misfit who briefly studied psychology.

Yettaw changed dramatically when his son Clint died two years ago in a motorcycling accident at the age of 17. The teen was buried on the family farm in the hamlet of Falcon.

Yettaw took a backpack tour through Asia with another son, during which he made his first swim to Suu Kyi’s house. He then began to experience the latest of the visions, according to Newsweek magazine.

In April Yettaw left his children with friends and set off for Thailand, and then Burma.

”I don’t think he’s well,” Yettaw’s third wife Yvonne told Newsweek.

Activists were angered that Yettaw would now go back home while Suu Kyi and her two female aides remained in detention, describing the episode as a propaganda coup for the junta. — AFP