Friday, May 8, 2009

Story of 'Suu Kyi' Swimmer Widely Questioned

The Irrawaddy News

The news reported on Thursday that a US citizen swam across Inya Lake to the home of detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Rangoon, where he stayed for a three-day period, has become the talk of Burma.

The man, identified by the government as John Willian [sic] Yeattaw, was reportedly arrested on Wednesday morning as he was swimming away from Suu Kyi’s home.

The lakeside home of Aung San Suu Kyi on Inya Lake in Rangoon, with four policemen in a boat in the foreground. (Photo:AP)

Because of the unexplained sequence of events, many Rangoon residents discount the truth of the government account, which appeared in state-backed media. No other details or motives were provided.

The alleged intrusion into her private compound comes as Suu Kyi’s house arrest is set to expire this month.

“Security personnel found a suspicious looking foreigner swimming with the help of a 5-litre drinking water bottle in Inya Lake” at 5.30 a.m. On Wednesday, the state-run New Light of Myanmar reported. The report was not accompanied by a photograph of the intruder.

The report said “he secretly entered the house and stayed there” on Sunday night and remained there through Tuesday night.

The US Embassy in Rangoon said it has made repeated requests to see the man, which have been denied.

“We would like to confirm the information ourselves and to speak with the man directly,” said embassy spokesman Richard Mei.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s home (see circle) on the south side of Inya Lake in Rangoon and the location of the arrest of a US citizen (see box) near Prome Road.

According to Rangoon residents and journalists contacted by The Irrawaddy, many citizens in the former capital do not believe the story as it has been reported.

“The news of an American guy swimming to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s house is now the talk of the town here,” said a Rangoon journalist who spoke on condition of anonymity.

He said many people think the story was fabricated by the government as propaganda, intended to discredit Suu Kyi and provide an excuse not to release her from house arrest.

A Burmese social worker in Rangoon told The Irrawaddy that the story is confusing.

“Yes, it is the hottest news in the town,” she said. “But people are saying that nobody knows if it is really true. Only Daw Aung San Suu Kyi can tell the truth. And nobody can ask her directly.”

For some members of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) and other dissidents at home and abroad, the news raised concern about the Nobel laureate’s security.

“We cannot confirm yet that the news is true or not. However, this is a very dangerous situation for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi if the event really happened,” said Han Thar Myint, an NLD spokesman. “As we know, security forces are supposed to be on the bank of the lake at her compound.”

An exiled dissident group, the Democratic Party for New Society, announced on Thursday that the incident showed that Suu Kyi’s life was at risk.

Recently the junta rejected an appeal by Suu Kyi’s lawyer for her release, saying the “grounds for her appeal were not strong enough.”

Suu Kyi has been under house arrest for 13 of past 19 years. In 2008, the junta extended her detention for one more year. Her attorney and the government differ on the date when her detention is scheduled to end. According to NLD spokesman Han Thar Myint, the detention is set to expire in May, but authorities said it will be in November.

Authorities allow only her doctor and two caretakers access inside Suu Kyi’s home. Her family doctor, Tin Myo Win, regularly visits her every first Thursday each month, NLD sources said. Tin Myo Win was scheduled to visit her on Thursday, but he was not available when The Irrawaddy tried to contact him.

If elements of the story are true, the tantalizing questions are what were the man’s motives and did he have any connection with a government, a political group, or was the incident the act of one individual working alone?

In the past, foreigners who entered Burma and who tried to engage in political work or activities have been arrested and threatened with imprisonment. Usually, they are deported.

The US Campaign for Burma, a leading Burma campaign group in the United States, denied any connection with the American who was named in the newspaper report. Other exiled pro-democracy groups have also denied involvement.

Following the incident, US citizens in Burma are reportedly under increased surveillance by Burmese authorities, according to sources in Rangoon.

Two US journalists were reportedly deported from the country on Thursday after authorities learned that they gave a journalism training course in Mandalay.

Suu Kyi’s neighbors said on Friday that authorities had changed security guard personnel at her compound.

Recently, increased personal attacks on Suu Kyi have appeared on Internet blogs and some observers say they are the work of pro-junta elements.

“Last month, I told the chairman of the NLD that we should expect that there could be some unusual news and attacks on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi ahead of the expiration of her detention date,” said Thein Nyunt, a senior NLD member.

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