Missouri man in Suu Kyi trial was trying to help

Tuesday, August 11, 2009 | 2:40 p.m. CDT

BANGKOK — John William Yettaw thought he was on a mission from God to save Aung San Suu Kyi. But the American ended up inadvertently extending her house arrest.

It started with his now infamous swim in May. Overweight, asthmatic and suffering from borderline diabetes, he arrived at the back door of the Nobel Peace laureate's home and lay down exhausted, with cramps in both legs. Suu Kyi's two companions heard him moaning but let him in only after dawn.

Then Suu Kyi herself told him to get out, allowing him to stay two nights only when he complained of ill health. She later said she had known so many colleagues who were unfairly detained and would not wish that fate on him.

The bizarre and unexpected visit led to a trial — in which Suu Kyi was charged with violating her house arrest and Yettaw with abetting her in that crime. On Tuesday, the court sentenced both Suu Kyi and Yettaw, who spent the final days before the verdict in a hospital for epileptic seizures, isolated and under guard.

Suu Kyi's house arrest for her pro-democracy activities had been expected to be over at the end of May. But Yettaw's visit gave the ruling military junta a pretext — though they might have found one anyway — to keep her detained through a general election planned for next year.

Suu Kyi was sentenced to 18 more months in detention. Yettaw got seven years in prison with hard labor, shocking his family.

"How is he going to do hard labor if he is so ill?" a former wife, Yvonne Yettaw told The Associated Press by telephone from Palm Springs, California. "Maybe they'll realize he won't make it seven years, and they'll send him home."

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized the sentences, saying Suu Kyi should never have been put on trial and calling for the release of her and all political prisoners, including Yettaw.

Yettaw had arrived dripping at Suu Kyi's house with little more than a pair of homemade flippers and a warning — he'd had a "vision" that Suu Kyi would be assassinated. But when observers at her trial called the 53-year-old American a fool, Suu Kyi chose to defend him, saying he had a right to say what he believed.

While in prison awaiting trial, Yettaw also received the news that one of his children, an adult son, had died — the second child he had lost.

Other misfortunes even earlier in the Missourian's life put him on the path to Asia, his wife Betty told The Associated Press during the trial.

She said Yettaw 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."

Yettaw has claimed to have had a traumatic childhood, including having his father walk out on the family. According to his wife, he received a head injury during military service that caused blackouts and seizures and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

In August 2007, his 17-year-old son died in a motorcycle accident.

"After Clint's death, he took something that was already of intense interest to him because of previous experiences in his life, healing/forgiveness following traumatic events, and threw himself into his research, which precipitated his six months in Asia last year," said Paul Nedrow, Yettaw's stepson.

In November last year, Yettaw made his first secret visit to Suu Kyi's house, but he was turned away without meeting her. He left behind some religious books, including a copy of the Book of Mormon.

In May, he tried again. This time successful, and rested and fed, he left her house the night of May 5. Early the next morning, police fished him out of the lake behind Suu Kyi's home.

"He was not surprised by the judgment," Yettaw's lawyer, Khin Maung Oo, said after Tuesday's verdict, but he plans to appeal.


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