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Missouri man who swam to Suu Kyi in Myanmar stands trial

Wednesday, July 29, 2009 | 7:26 p.m. CDT

BANGKOK — He has been called a fool and a madman, an American innocent abroad who swam a lake to meet Myanmar's most famous dissident and barged into the midst of her 20-year struggle of wills with the country's military dictatorship.

More than two months after John William Yettaw's strange late-night swim to the home of Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, he stands beside her on trial, facing up to five years' imprisonment if found guilty on Friday.

Such a penalty would keep Suu Kyi incarcerated through next year's general election. If so, say her supporters, it is 53-year-old Yettaw who gave the generals the pretext by exposing her to charges that she violated her house arrest by harboring the uninvited guest.

Suu Kyi, who has already spent 14 of the past 20 years in detention for her nonviolent promotion of democracy, has pleaded not guilty. So have Yettaw and two women who live with Suu Kyi at her lakeside house.

Some Suu Kyi supporters suspect he's a pawn of the regime; the regime insinuates he is being used by its exiled opponents. Interviews with people who know Yettaw reveal a man with a troubled past, strong Christian beliefs and a compulsion to comfort the afflicted.

For this Mormon from Missouri, the road to Asia was paved with his own misfortunes — an unhappy childhood, serious injuries during military service and the loss of a teenage son — his wife, Betty, said in an e-mail interview.

She said her husband aspired to write about "forgiveness as a component of resiliency in overcoming the effects of trauma, whether it be natural disaster, torture, abuse, imprisonment or bereavement."

His former wife Yvonne said he set out for Asia about a year ago intending to visit China's Sichuan province for "humanitarian purposes" after its devastating earthquake. It was not clear if he made it to the quake zone.

In Vietnam, he traveled to an orphanage and a village of victims of Agent Orange, the toxic defoliant the U.S. sprayed during the Vietnam War.

In Thailand, he visited Mae Sot, on the border with Myanmar, also known as Burma. The town is home to exiled Myanmar activists, refugees and anti-government guerrillas of the Karen ethnic minority, humanitarian workers and spies for the junta.

He "became interested in the plight of the Karen people and the Burmese people in general, and then Aung San Suu Kyi," Betty Yettaw said. "He has great respect for her and merely wanted to interview her."

But a Thai acquaintance insists that Yettaw — a practicing member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints — was driven by his religious beliefs. Yettaw himself testified that he swam to Suu Kyi's house to deliver a warning that he had had a "vision" that she would be assassinated.

Yettaw's home is a dilapidated trailer in a heavily wooded property about two miles outside the tiny town of Falcon in south-central Missouri.

Born in Detroit in 1955, he has said his father abandoned him as a boy. In 1973 he joined the Army, was posted to Germany and discharged after just over a year.

Betty Yettaw said he received a head injury during Army service that caused blackouts and later seizures. She said she believes he also suffered an eye injury that affected his vision. She and ex-wife Yvonne both said he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, but neither could say what caused it. Yettaw sometimes leaves the impression that he served in Vietnam, but public records list Germany as his only overseas posting.

The Veterans Administration says he receives $3,157 a month, which appears to be his sole income.

Back in civilian life, Yettaw became a general contractor and settled in California. He had two failed marriages before meeting and marrying Yvonne, with whom he had seven children. The couple divorced in 2002, and he married Betty Parnell.

On Aug. 2, 2007, his 17-year-old son, Clint Alexander, was killed in a motorcycle accident. This, says the family, intensified his interest in ways of overcoming traumatic events.

Yettaw brought along another teenage son, Brian, for four months of backpacking in Asia, and then stayed on alone another two months, much of it in Mae Sot, before entering Myanmar as a tourist in November.

According to police in Myanmar, Yettaw said that in Thailand he met with Bo Kyi of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners and made 10 visits to a clinic that serves refugees from Myanmar.

"He mentioned he was writing a book about torture victims," said Bo Kyi, whose organization documents political arrests in Myanmar. He described Yettaw as "not very professional," ''a very emotional man" and "a bit abnormal."

A Thai Christian woman with whom Yettaw often talked at his hotel in Mae Sot described him as "a friendly man" and "selfless and religious."

"Mostly we talked about the Bible," said the woman, who insisted on anonymity to protect her privacy. Yettaw was on a spiritual mission and didn't care about politics, she said. "He has more faith in God. He doesn't care if people ridicule him."

She said he wanted Suu Kyi "to know about God, to read the Bible and to listen to sermons."

On his first Myanmar visit he went to Suu Kyi's house but was not allowed in to meet her. He left behind several religious tracts, including "The Book of Mormon."

"Yes, he brought reading material as a gift to one who is isolated," Betty Yettaw said. "There was religious history and some poetry with some of his own writing, I believe. He is aware that she is a devout Buddhist and was not hoping to convert her."

He seemed determined to try again, said his wife. "Even though I asked him not to consider it, he prayed about it and felt that he would be protected from harm and that it would be for a good cause."

Yettaw arrived back in Yangon on May 2 and the next night swam 1 1/4 miles across Inya Lake to Suu Kyi's house.

He arrived between 3 and 4 a.m., according to court testimony, and lay down exhausted near the back door, with cramps in both legs. The two women who are the only companions Suu Kyi is allowed said they heard him moaning but only let him in after dawn.

"I told him to get out of my house compound," said Suu Kyi in a statement presented at her trial. "He told me that he would be arrested if he went out in daylight, so he would like to go back at nighttime. However, at night he requested me to allow him to stay overnight for health reasons."

She explained that her failure to turn him over to the authorities was influenced by her experience that "a large number of my colleagues have been serving long prison terms without protection and leniency of law."

It was not clear if details of any conversations between the two have been outlined in court.

Rested and fed, and having shot a videotape of himself in Suu Kyi's living room, Yettaw left the house on the night of May 5.

Next morning, at about 5:30 according to testimony, Police Lance Corporal Myo Lwin spotted the American floating some 100 yards offshore in Inya Lake, buoyed by two large, empty water bottles. With a partner, he pulled Yettaw out of the water and arrested him.

By the time he had to face trial, Yettaw was being branded a fool by some of Suu Kyi's supporters who even theorized that the American had been unwittingly duped by regime authorities into taking the swim so they could legally ensnare Suu Kyi and thus extend her detention.

The regime's media in turn speculated that he was an agent of opposition exile groups.

Ahead of one hearing, he shouted out in the courtroom that "Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is not guilty, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is not guilty," according to Nyan Win, one of the opposition leader's lawyers. Daw is a term of respect used for older women.

His 14-page statement at the trial "was very nicely written, mainly stating that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi should be acquitted," said Yettaw's lawyer, Khin Maung Oo.

Myanmar's national police chief, Gen. Khin Yi, told reporters late last month that Yettaw is "the main culprit" in the affair, perhaps directed by or under the influence of the junta's enemies. He described him as "an intelligent man and not unsound of mind as alleged by some opposition groups."

 


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