The American mystery man behind Aung San Suu Kyi's latest troubles

John Yettaw's unauthorized visit to the home of the Burmese Nobel Peace Prize laureate may land her in jail for another five years. Final arguments for her speedy trial begin Monday.

By , Asia editor

The trial of Aung San Suu Kyi has boosted even further the prominence of the world’s best-known prisoner of conscience.

It’s also drawn worldwide attention – or, notoriety – to John Yettaw, the American who entered Burma (Myanmar) illegally, then swam to Ms. Suu Kyi's home late at night with homemade fins on a “mission from God.”

The mission? To warn her about an assassination plot.

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Yettaw reportedly swam two kilometers across the lake – no easy task – with homemade fins (see photo here), a backpack full of clothes, books, and a five-liter bottle that may have served as a flotation device.

Other possessions included a “Book of Mormon, a video camera, black Muslim robes, stockings and dark glasses,” according to his testimony, reported Irrawaddy, a Burmese English-language publication based in Thailand.

Suu Kyi’s decision to allow her uninvited, tired guest to stay overnight earlier this month may land her in jail for up to five years, for violating the terms of her current imprisonment. Suu Kyi has lived under house arrest for 13 of the past 19 years. Her current six-year term was set to expire Wednesday.

Instead she’s spent the past week at Burma’s infamous Insein Prison, as has Mr. Yettaw. The trial is clipping toward what many expect will be a guilty verdict: It began nine days ago and heard 14 prosecution witnesses.

The defense witness tally? Only one was allowed by the court.

Final arguments are scheduled for Monday.

Who is the man who landed her in trouble?

Yettaw, from Falcon, Mo., is a US military veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, his ex-wife Yvonne Yettaw told The Associated Press.

Yettaw had six children with Yvonne, plus one from her previous marriage, Craig Dehner. They were married for 12 years before divorcing in 2002. One of his sons died in a motorcycle accident in 2007 – a death Yettaw blamed on himself, according to Mr. Dehner.

Yettaw is now married to Betty Yettaw and has custody of the four younger children. According to Yvonne, he left them in the care of friends while he traveled to Asia.

He worked part-time as a general contractor and received veteran’s disability payment, she said.

Yettaw has said he’s a student at the Forest Institute in Springfield, Mo., a school for advanced degrees in psychology. But officials at the school told the Associated Press that Yettaw neither was currently enrolled nor had a degree from there.

Why did he do it?

According to Yvonne, whom John visited last month before his travels, he said he was going to Asia to write a psychology paper about forgiveness.

His current wife, Betty, confirmed his research interests, saying he wanted to talk to Suu Kyi to learn about how people cope with stress and abuse. ““He has no agenda whatsoever as far as the country goes. He really just wanted to have some comments from her, I believe,” she told the AP.

Yettaw gave a different reason when he testified in court Wednesday: He said he needed to warn Suu Kyi about a vision he’d had that terrorists were plotting to assassinate her and blame the government. He claimed to be “on a mission from God,” Suu Kyi’s lawyer, Nyan Win, was quoted in Democratic Voice of Burma, an expatriate media organization.

Apparently this vision had come to him twice. Yettaw tried – unsuccessfully – to visit Suu Kyi’s home last November.

“He said he was only here to warn us, as God told him to and that he loves Burmese people and has respect to the Burmese Police who are very well disciplined,” said Nyan Win.

How have people reacted?

Activists have lambasted Yettaw, frustrated that his visit gave the regime a reason to further punish Suu Kyi.

“Everyone is very angry with this wretched American. He is the cause of all these problems,” said Kyi Win, another one of Suu Kyi’s lawyers.

Betty Yettaw defends her husband. “He’s not crazy. He’s eccentric,” she told the AP.

“He’s a very peaceloving person, well-meaning, forgiving, mild-mannered. He meant the very best for her. I don’t think he could have foreseen that it was going to be such a mess, that they were going to make such a huge deal out of it,” she said. “He probably thought he would be in and out, and no one would know because that’s what happened before.”

What happened during his stay?

Four or five armed guards saw Yettaw as he approached Suu Kyi’s compound but didn’t try to stop him, said lawyer Nyan Win. “They were carrying guns with them but they didn’t do anything to stop him from approaching the house, apart from throwing some stones at him,” he said. One of Suu Kyi’s two assistants alerted her to the intruder around 5 a.m. on May 4, and she offered him “temporary shelter,” she testified on Tuesday. He left on the evening of May 5.

Suu Kyi says she didn’t report him to the authorities to avoid getting him in trouble. He was arrested while swimming away from her home.

Suu Kyi’s legal team has argued she can’t be held responsible for Yettaw’s visit. Instead the fault lies with the guards who allowed the security breach, it claims. None of them have been punished. "The fact that I am the only party being prosecuted shows the partiality of the prosecution," Suu Kyi said in a written statement to the court this week.

What charges does Yettaw face?

Yettaw faces up to five years in prison for illegally entering a restricted zone. Another charge, of breaking immigration laws, is punishable by up to one year in prison.

He’s also charged with illegally swimming in Inya Lake.

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