Thursday, May 28, 2009

Is Yettaw a Triathlete?

The Irrawaddy News

John William Yettaw would have to be a triathlete to have swum two kilometers across Inya Lake carrying a backpack full of clothes, presents and books, according to a technical director with the world’s leading SCUBA diving authority.

“A triathlete can swim two kilometers (1.2 miles) in about 40 minutes,” said Mike Holme, the director of training at the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) in Sydney, Australia.

An undated handout combination photo shows US citizen John William Yettaw taking a picture of himself (top) and the makeshift flippers he claimed to have used to swim across Inya Lake to Burma's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's compound in Rangoon. (Photo: Reuters)

“However, given the weight that this guy [Yettaw] was carrying and the conditions, it would be a big ‘ask.’ It’s not impossible, but he would have to be in very good shape.”

On Tuesday, police evidence was produced at the trial in Rangoon of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is accused of breaking the terms of her house arrest by allowing an American intruder to stay overnight at her lakeside home on May 3-5.

According to one of her lawyers, Nyan Win, who is also a spokesman for Suu Kyi’s opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), the 60 items of police evidence that were found in Suu Kyi’s home that allegedly belong to Yettaw include a black backpack, a video camera, two black Muslim robes, veils, stockings, pliers, money, a passport, sunglasses and several books, including the Book of Mormon. He was reportedly also carrying an empty five-liter plastic bottle.

It is alleged that 53-year-old Yettaw, who appears heavyset in photographs and is known to suffer from asthma and diabetes, attached homemade fins to his sandals and swam across Inya Lake on the night of May 3.

It is unknown where he set off from, only that state-run media reported that he was fished out of the water by police on the morning of May 5 on the west bank of the lake near the International Business Center and the American embassy.

If he had embarked from the same location, he would have had to swim two kilometers laden with the backpack and its contents to get to Suu Kyi’s compound.

A Thailand-based journalist familiar with Inya Lake speculated that—because most of the lakeside is off-limits to the public—the only other place where Yettaw could have set off from would be the Jade Gardens, which is a park located on a small peninsula just 100 to 200 meters in front of Suu Kyi’s house. The Jade Gardens are closed at night and security around the park is said to be “very tight.”

According to Holme, the five-liter bottle could have been used as a flotation device and, if the backpack were securely attached, it could have supported up to five kilograms in weight.

The weight of Yettaw’s backpack is not known. However, just the Book of Mormon alone would weigh about one kilogram if it were a hardback edition.

“First of all, those homemade fins wouldn’t have given him adequate propulsion,” said Holme. “And if the backpack and its contents got wet, it would be even harder to keep them afloat.”

Security around the detained opposition leader’s house is notoriously tight with an estimated 12 to 15 police officers on duty 24 hours a day. Police boats are a frequent sight on Inya Lake as they patrol the waters around Suu Kyi’s house.

To date, no statement has been issued by Burmese authorities that would suggest that Yettaw was spotted by security guards or police during his epic swim into Suu Kyi’s compound.

According to Rangoon residents, the perimeter of Inya Lake is covered in thick reeds, which make treading water very difficult and which have been responsible for many deaths in the past when people get tangled in the undergrowth. The water around Suu Kyi’s house is thought to be about five meters (15 feet) deep.

It is alleged by Burmese military authorities that when Yettaw arrived at the house, he was met by Suu Kyi’s two companions who fed him because he was exhausted. At 5 a.m. they informed Suu Kyi that an intruder had entered the house, said Nyan Win.

According to Suu Kyi’s lawyer, she asked him to leave but he was unable to go because of exhaustion and his health conditions. Suu Kyi is reported to have allowed the American to stay the next day before he left the following night at 11:45 p.m.

According to the New Light of Myanmar newspaper, Yettaw was fished out of Inya Lake by police at around 5 a.m. the following morning. How and where Yettaw spent the five hours before his reported arrest is unknown.

At her trial on Tuesday, Suu Kyi told the court: “I only know that he went to the lakeside. I do not know which way he went, because it was dark.”

Speaking to The Irrawaddy, spokesman Nyan Win said, “If the security had been proper, the American would not have got there.”

Speculation that Yettaw had in fact been allowed to enter Suu Kyi’s home by security personnel has been fueled by a statement from a Rangoon taxi driver that appeared on a Burmese Web site,

He said that in November he drove Yettaw to the gate of Suu Kyi’s house and witnessed him showing a “red card” to security guards before being allowed to enter the compound.

Suu Kyi is expected to testify again on Wednesday. She faces up to five years’ imprisonment if found guilty of Section 22 of the Law Safeguarding the State from Dangers of Subversive Elements.

Yettaw has been charged with immigration violations and for breeching sanitation codes by swimming in the lake. He faces a maximum sentence of six years.

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