Missouri man says no regrets about Myanmar jailing

Wednesday, August 19, 2009 | 7:13 p.m. CDT; updated 10:17 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, August 19, 2009

CHICAGO — Missourian John Yettaw said Wednesday he has no regrets about taking a secret swim to the home of Myanmar's detained democracy leader, a decision that landed them both in prison, saying he would do it again "a hundred times."

Yettaw, 53, was wearing a blue surgical mask and clutching a green Harrods bag as he was pushed in a wheelchair through Chicago's O'Hare International Airport after arriving in the U.S. on Wednesday. Yettaw, who has been ill since his arrest in Myanmar, wore the mask to guard against infection.

Yettaw is from the tiny south-central Missouri town of Falcon, but he generated global headlines after he was arrested and sentenced to hard labor for visiting the home of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi. Yettaw was deported Sunday after the intervention of U.S. Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va.

Yettaw has testified that he swam to the Nobel Laureate's house in May to warn her that he had a "vision" that she would be assassinated. He said Wednesday before boarding his plane to Springfield, Mo. , his final destination on the nearly 24-hour journey from Bangkok, that he would do it again.

"If I had to do it again, I would do it a hundred times, a hundred times, to save her life," he said, speaking through his surgical mask.

Though Yettaw was released, Suu Kyi and her two live-in aides remain in detention because of Yettaw's visit. Although defended by Suu Kyi, Yettaw has been called a fool and a madman by some of her supporters.

"That they locked her up, it just breaks my heart," an exhausted-looking Yettaw said about Suu Kyi.

As he waited for his flight in Chicago, Yettaw sat with his head in his hands, his eyes bloodshot. His companion, who did not identify herself, said he was "very tired." He flashed the sign language symbol for "I love you" and nodded and smiled when asked whether he was happy to be home.

When asked later if he would comment further, Yettaw said, "I wish I could talk more. I can't," and made a zipper motion across his mouth.

Yettaw had flown with Webb to neighboring Thailand on a U.S. government plane Sunday and underwent two days of medical tests at a private Bangkok hospital.

Webb said Yettaw had suffered a "medical incident" just before leaving Myanmar as authorities there read him his deportation order. While in custody in a Yangon jail during his trial, he had a seizure and was hospitalized for a week. He also reportedly suffers from diabetes and asthma.

Yettaw also looked pale and haggard Wednesday morning as he prepared to board a plane in Bangkok. Asked about his health, he only pointed to the IV needle inserted in the back of his right hand.

In Myanmar, Suu Kyi's lawyers have described Yettaw's release as a "very ugly" turn.

"It's very ugly that the person who caused the problem was released, but the three people in the house remain detained," Suu Kyi said, according to attorney Nyan Win who visited her Monday.

Yettaw, a Mormon who lives on a military pension from serving in the Army for about a year in 1973, traveled to Myanmar in early May and donned homemade flippers for a nighttime swim to Suu Kyi's lakeside home. The incident led to a trial that sparked global condemnation in which Suu Kyi was sentenced to an additional 18 months of detention for breaching the terms of her house arrest. She has already spent 14 of the past 20 years in detention.

Yettaw testified that he was on a divine mission to save the democracy leader, saying he had a "vision" she was going to be assassinated and wanted to warn her. Suu Kyi testified that she repeatedly asked Yettaw to leave but relented because he complained of exhaustion and she was concerned for his safety.

Associated Press Writer Jocelyn Gecker in Bangkok contributed to this report.

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