Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Man's 'divine mission' to save Aung San Suu Kyi lands both in jail

By Danny Kemp in Bangkok

* Suu Kyi's visitor on "divine mission"
* Wanted to warn her she was in great danger
* She got extra 18 months, he got seven years
* Times UK: Suu Kyi silenced again

JOHN Yettaw thought he was on a divine mission to save Aung San Suu Kyi when he swam to her lakeside house - but the troubled US military veteran instead left her at the mercy of Burma's (Myanmar's) junta.

The 54-year-old from Missouri was initially branded a "fool" by lawyers for the detained Nobel Peace Prize winner after his bizarre adventure in May gave the military regime a ready-made excuse to keep her locked up.

Yet a picture eventually emerged of a somewhat tragic figure on a spiritual quest, a devout Mormon who sought redemption after his teenaged son was killed riding a motorcycle that Mr Yettaw had bought for him as a present.

Yesterday, a prison court sentenced Mr Yettaw to seven years of hard labour and imprisonment - three years for breaching security laws, three years for immigration violations and one year for a municipal charge of illegal swimming.

Ms Suu Kyi was sentenced to three years but junta chief Than Shwe signed a special order allowing her to serve just half that time, under house arrest.

The 64-year-old Suu Kyi was later driven back to the house under tight security and the road outside the crumbling villa was sealed off. She has already been in detention for 14 of the past 20 years since Burma's ruling generals - who renamed the country Myanmar - refused to recognise her National League for Democracy's landslide victory in 1990 elections.

The rulings were met with instant condemnation around the world: US President Barack Obama called it "unjust" and demanded Ms Suu Kyi and all other Burmese political prisoners be freed; the European Union vowed the reinforce existing sanctions and France called for new sanctions.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd called the charges against Ms Suu Kyi "spurious" and branded the court ruling a "new low" for the junta. The Government will resume broadcasting Radio Australia into Burma, something Ms Suu Kyi had previously called for.

Court drama

The diabetic, epileptic father-of-seven found himself at the centre of Ms Suu Kyi's two-decade struggle with Burma's generals when police arrested him climbing out of the waters of Yangon's Lake Inye on May 6.

He was found with a pair of homemade flippers, along with an amateurish "spy kit" of a black shoulder bag, torch, folding pliers, a camera, two $US100 bills and some Burmese currency.

State media printed photographs that Mr Yettaw had taken of himself before his ill-fated adventure sporting his flippers for his swim, wearing a short-sleeved shirt and looking intensely into the lens. "(Mr Jettaw's) a very sincere and pious person," his lawyer Khin Maung Oo said.

It later transpired that it was not the first time he had been to Ms Suu Kyi's crumbling villa. In November 2008 he walked along a lakeside drain and left a copy of the Book of Mormon at her house before escaping.

His activities spawned conspiracy theories on both sides. During the trial, it emerged that he had been in contact with exile groups in Thailand before crossing over to Burma, prompting the junta to suggest that he was a "secret agent or her (Suu Kyi's) boyfriend".

The exiled activists meanwhile wondered whether he had been paid by Burma's rulers to give a reason for extending her detention, which was due to expire just days after he was arrested.

But it turned out that Mr Yettaw believed he was taking orders from a higher authority still - he had experienced a divine vision that "terrorists" would assassinate Ms Suu Kyi and wanted to warn her.

"Yettaw said he came here because God asked him to," Nyan Win, one of Ms Suu Kyi's lawyers, quoted him as telling the trial in May. "In his vision, the terrorists assassinated Aung San Suu Kyi and then they put the blame for the assassination on the government, so that's why he came here, to warn both of them," he said.

The story behind this vision revealed a lost soul with a difficult past. Military records showed that he had spent a brief spell in the US military in the 1970s, although Mr Yettaw told Burmese authorities that he was a Vietnam veteran with a history of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Married four times and with a history of drink problems and living in trailers, he was described locally as something of a misfit. Then his son Clint died two years ago in a motorcycling accident at the age of 17, and was buried on the family farm in the hamlet of Falcon, according to a US-based website.

The trauma changed everything. He took a backpack tour through Asia with another son, during which he made his first swim to Ms Suu Kyi's house, and then had the latest of the visions which he had experienced for years, according to Newsweek magazine.

Then he left his children with friends and in April this year set off for Thailand and then Rangoon (Yangon). France-Presse

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