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Arrested: May 5, 2009
The case of John Yettaw includes a number of complicating factors related to Yettaw’s posttraumatic stress disorder and other personal issues. However, select elements of this case have particular value for purposes of studying and understanding the various characteristics of ShowTrials. Like many ShowTrials, this case garnered high-profile media attention. It also involved U.S. diplomatic engagement with a non-U.S. ally. One of the most fascinating elements of Yettaw’s story, however, is that it also directly impacted the case of a famous political prisoner in Burma: Aung San Suu Kyi, a prodemocracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize recipient who was under house arrest at the time.
John Yettaw was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1955. After serving in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, he attended Drury University. He graduated in 1997 cum laude with a triple degree in psychology, criminal justice, and biology. Friends, family, and neighbors have described Yettaw as well intentioned and spiritual, but plagued with posttraumatic stress disorder and alcoholism. The death of Yettaw’s seventeen-year-old son in 2007 prompted Yettaw and another son to travel to Asia for six months in May of 2008.
When his son returned to the U.S. in September, Yettaw traveled to Mae Sot, Thailand. It was there that he became interested in Aung San Suu Kyi, a Burmese prodemocracy leader who was under house arrest at the time. Yettaw had visions that Suu Kyi was in danger. In October 2008 he obtained a Burma visa in Bangkok, Thailand and flew to Yangon a week later.
Under Suu Kyi’s house arrest provisions she is prohibited from having any contact with outsiders. It is also illegal to have a guest stay overnight at one’s own home without notifying Burma authorities first.
“Suu Kyi reported Yettaw’s visit after he left, but the authorities took no action. Yettaw testified police apprehended him, aimed guns at him, and asked, ‘What are you doing here’, but they then released him.”
On November 30, 2008 Yettaw swam 1.2 miles across Lake Inya to Suu Kyi’s home. Security guards surrounded the home twenty-four hours a day and police boats patrolled the waters surrounding the home. Yet, Yettaw was able to evade the authorities and enter the property. However, house staff would not let him see Suu Kyi. He stayed two days before swimming back. Suu Kyi reported Yettaw’s visit after he left, but the authorities took no action. Yettaw testified police apprehended him, aimed guns at him, and asked, “What are you doing here”, but they then released him.
Yettaw immediately began planning his next attempt. He spent some time in the U.S. before flying back to Bangkok on April 20, 2009. He swam the same route to Suu Kyi’s home again on May 3, 2009. At 5 AM on May 4 he climbed up a drain and entered the house. He was met by Suu Kyi’s two assistants. They urged him to leave, but when he complained of health problems they fed him and allowed him to stay on the ground floor of the home.
“Some believe the charges against Suu Kyi were a way to extend her detention until after the 2010 elections in Burma.”
Suu Kyi testified Yettaw left that same day just before midnight. On May 5 at 5 AM police apprehended Yettaw just as he was arriving back to shore. He was arrested on May 6 and charged with illegally entering a restricted zone, illegal swimming, and breaking immigration laws. Burma authorities also charged Suu Kyi and her two assistants for breaching the terms of her house arrest under the country’s Law Safeguarding the State from the Dangers of Subversive Elements. Some believe the charges against Suu Kyi were a way to extend her detention so she would not be released until after the 2010 elections in Burma.
Suu Kyi released a statement blaming Burmese authorities for Yettaw’s breach. She stated she had reported his first breach in 2008, but no action had been taken.
The trial began on May 18, 2009. Yettaw and Suu Kyi pleaded not guilty. The trial judge allowed fourteen of the twenty-three people testifying for the prosecution; however, the judge only allowed four of the defense’s witnesses to testify. The defense appealed this decision. The Yangon Divisional Court allowed one more person to testify for the defense.
During the trial it was clear the Burmese authorities believed Yettaw had intruded onto the property in order to help Suu Kyi escape. Yettaw testified, on the stand, that he was sent by God to protect Suu Kyi from a terrorist group trying to assassinate her.
On May 8 Yettaw began fasting. He refused all food and only accepted water in an attempt to induce another vision. By July 9 he was still fasting, but by that point he was moved to Insein Prison Hospital to be fed intravenously. About a month later, on August 3, after he began having seizures, he was moved once more to Yangon General Hospital. He was discharged on August 10.
The day after he was discharged, Yettaw was sentenced to seven years imprisonment. He received three years for violating Suu Kyi’s house arrest, three years of hard labor for violating immigration laws, and one year of hard labor for trespassing. Suu Kyi was sentenced to an additional eighteen months of house arrest for breaching the conditions of her house arrest.
On August 12 U.S. Senator Jim Webb arrived in Burma. He met with the leader of the ruling junta, Senior Gen. Than Shwe and was able to negotiate the release of Yettaw based on humanitarian grounds due to his poor health. Yettaw’s sentence was cut in half, and the remaining time was suspended upon his deportation.