American defies junta with lake swim to Suu Kyi

Regime questions man who breached security to visit pro-democracy leader

The Burmese junta is questioning an American citizen who swam across a lake to the waterside house of Aung San Suu Kyi, spent two days at the home of the detained opposition leader and was then captured as he tried to escape by swimming back under cover of darkness.

State media in Rangoon said the man had been fished out of the city's Inya Lake in the early hours of Wednesday morning. The reports said that the man, named as 53-year-old John William Yeattaw, swam across the lake to Ms Suu Kyi's house on Sunday evening, using an empty plastic container as a float. He is believed to be the first person to covertly enter the opposition leader's home.

"He secretly entered the house and stayed there," said the state-controlled Myanma Ahlin newspaper. "Further investigation is under way to find out his motive for secretly entering the restricted area."

The American citizen – whose name US officials believe may have been spelt incorrectly by the Burmese authorities – would be one of very few visitors to the imprisoned politician's home in the past six years.

Her traditional, lakeside house located on University Avenue has become a prison. Jailed or detained under house arrest for 13 of the past 19 years, Ms Suu Kyi's current term of detention dates from May 2003. This week it was revealed that an appeal to Burma's military rulers to release her – her term of detention should technically end later this month – had failed.

During that time, her only visits have been occasional opportunities to meet members of her National League for Democracy (NLD), her doctor, lawyer and UN envoys. Foreign diplomats were permitted to see her at one stage but that was stopped several years ago.

In such circumstances, it might be assumed that the 63-year-old, who lives with two maids, would have had much to talk about during the two days that the visitor apparently stayed at her house.

Richard Mei, a spokesman for the US embassy, which is close to the house, said officials had requested a consular visit with the mystery swimmer but that permission had not yet been granted.

"We don't know a lot more than the story that's out there," he said. "They will tell us when it's OK to see him."

Reports said that Mr Yeattaw had arrived in Rangoon on Saturday night on a tourist visa and had stayed at the Beauty Land Hotel-2 guesthouse. As well as his passport, officials confiscated a torch, a pair of folding pliers, a Canon camera and some US currency.

Nyan Win, a spokesman for the NLD, said he had no information about the visitor or whether he had actually met the opposition leader. However, he expressed concerned about the ease with which he had accessed her home, which is tightly guarded. "We are very much concerned for her security. What happened shows a security lapse," he said.

In the aftermath of the incident, up to 20 police yesterday swarmed into Ms Suu Kyi's house. Neighbours told the Associated Press that police also blocked off the road to her house. While the property is supposedly tightly guarded and has a police post at the gate, it is apparently rare for the police to actually enter her property. They had left by yesterday evening.

Campaigners said that while the mystery swimmer had highlighted the opposition leader's ongoing detention – ruled illegal under both local and international law by the UN earlier this year – she was one of more than 2,000 political prisoners being held by the regime. Last year the junta imposed jail terms of up to 65 years for members of the '88 Generation Students group, pro-democracy activists who held demonstrations in the summer of 2007. A number of Buddhist monks who led the massive demonstrations later that same year have also been given lengthy terms.

"Despite the fact that her detention is illegal under Burmese and international law, the international community doesn't appear to be making a priority out of winning her release," said Mark Farmaner, of the Burma Campaign UK.

Campaigners say that the junta keeps Ms Suu Kyi under house arrest because it is terrified of the inspirational, galvanising effect "the lady" could have on the Burmese public if she were released. The NLD won a landslide election victory in 1990 but the military, which has ruled Burma under various guises since 1962, refused to acknowledge it. The State Peace and Development Council, as the current junta styles itself, says it intends to hold elections next year though most observers are deeply sceptical as to how free and fair any such vote would be. The NLD has already said it is boycotting the election.

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