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Missouri man detained in Myanmar

Tuesday, May 12, 2009 | 8:31 a.m. CDT; updated 12:54 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 12, 2009

BANGKOK — An American accused of swimming across a lake to sneak into the home of detained Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi might have made another secret visit to her last year.

Last week's incident — initially thought to be the first case of someone creeping unnoticed into Suu Kyi's closely guarded compound — has raised fears that the Nobel Peace laureate might have been ensnared in activities that could put her in further legal trouble.

Authorities on Tuesday tightened security in the back of Suu Kyi's lakeside home. Workers rolled barbed wire along the water's edge, where a newly erected fenceof tall wooden poles was built, according to witnesses who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

A news report in a Myanmar-language Web site published two photos said to have been found in the digital camera of the visitor, identified by the U.S. Embassy as John William Yettaw. One photo shows a heavyset, middle-aged man posing for a self-portrait in front of a mirror. The report says Yettaw is from Falcon, Mo.

The Web site, tharkinwe.com, seems to be close to the country's military-ruled government and hostile to Suu Kyi's democracy movement.

Pro-democracy activists and diplomats in Yangon have voiced suspicions that the incident might have been concocted by the government. There has been no government comment beyond the original report in the state-run press.

Suu Kyi has already spent more than 13 of the last 19 years — including the past six — in detention without trial for her nonviolent promotion of democracy, despite international pressure for her release. She has recently been ill, suffering from dehydration and low blood pressure. Dr. Pyone Moe Ei was allowed to see her on Monday afternoon, and Nyan Win, a spokesman for Suu Kyi's party, said Tuesday that her medical condition had improved after the doctor administered an IV drip.

Her usual doctor, Tin Myo Win, was detained last week for questioning after the swimming incident.

Her house is a restricted zone, she has no telephone, and she cannot be contacted for comment.

Suu Kyi is not allowed visitors, aside from her doctor. On infrequent occasions, she is allowed out under tight guard to meet with fellow party leaders and visiting U.N. representatives.

Myanmar's state-run newspapers reported last week that Yettaw swam about 1¼ miles on the night of May 3 to the lakeside home of the 63-year-old Suu Kyi and left the same way on the night of May 5, before being arrested the next morning.

The reports said the man was found with an empty 1.3-gallon plastic water jug — presumably used as a flotation device — as well as a U.S. passport, a flashlight, pliers, a camera, two $100 bills and some local currency.

Aside from the number of his passport and the claim that the man arrived in Yangon on May 2 and spent two full days inside Suu Kyi's compound, no other details were given. The authorities were said to be investigating his motives.

The U.S. Embassy has requested access to the detained man, which as of Tuesday had still not been granted, embassy spokesman Richard Mei said. He confirmed that Yettaw had made a previous visit to Myanmar, and said his family had been told of his arrest.

Mei said the embassy did not know about Yettaw's activities.

The most surprising assertion on the tharkinwe.com Web site was that Yettaw had confessed to swimming to Suu Kyi's house during his earlier visit to Myanmar in late 2008 and staying there for a longer period. It cited him saying he scouted his swimming route using the Google Earth Web service.

The Web site's report also said on arrival last week at Suu Kyi's house, Yettaw first met her two female assistants — a mother and daughter who are her sole allowed companions — and told them he was tired and hungry after the swim and has diabetes. The two women, supporters of Suu Kyi's party, were said to have given him food.

One of many strict rules the junta imposes on citizens is that they must notify local officials about any overnight visitor who is not a family member. The law also states that foreigners are not allowed to spend the night at a local's home.

Some members of Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, have been jailed for about two weeks for violating that law.

"I'm not really concerned she could be penalized for this break-in because she didn't invite him in," said Nyan Win, adding that it was worrisome how easily the man accessed her home. "My main concern is her security."

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Associated Press Writer Maria Fisher in Kansas City contributed to this report.

 


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