Unwanted intruder lands Suu Kyi in jail

Supporters criticise American who swam uninvited to dissident's lakeside house
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's democracy icon, will go on trial inside the nation's most notorious jail on Monday, accused of breaching the terms of her house arrest by allowing an American who swam uninvited to her lakeside home to stay overnight.

If found guilty she could be sentenced to five years' imprisonment, said Nyan Win, a spokesman for her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD).

John Yettaw, a 53-year-old American, reportedly swam to her house last December but Ms Suu Kyi persuaded him to leave. When he arrived last week she again urged him to leave but was induced to let him stay two nights on the grounds that he was feeling unwell. He was spotted by police and arrested as he was swimming away on the night of 5 May.

Now Ms Suu Kyi's supporters blame Mr Yettaw for giving the military regime an excuse to keep her away from all involvement in elections scheduled for 2010. She won a landslide victory for the NLD in the last elections in 1990 but the regime refused to honour the result.

Ms Suu Kyi was last freed from house arrest in 2002. In 2003, regime thugs attacked her and her supporters and she narrowly escaped being killed.

A five-year house arrest order imposed in 2003 was extended by another year in 2008. Nyan Win said the purpose of the trial was to extend her detention: "There is no criminal issue here. This is a political issue only – the term was about to expire."

Ms Suu Kyi, the daughter of Burma's independence hero General Aung San, has spent 13 of the past 19 years confined to her home. Since 2003 she has been banned from receiving visitors, speaking on the telephone or receiving letters. Her prison is her family's dilapidated villa on the shores of Inya Lake in the Rangoon suburbs.

Fears are growing for Ms Suu Kyi's health as she was put on an intravenous drip last week, suffering from low blood pressure and dehydration. "We are very worried about her," said Nyan Win. "Her health is very bad, we think she is in danger." Her doctor, Tin Myo Win, was arrested last week and is being held at an unknown location.

Jared Gensher, a lawyer for Ms Suu Kyi who is based in the US, condemned the upcoming trial as absurd. "The charge is going to be violating the conditions of her house arrest, and what her lawyer is going to argue is that of course that's ridiculous," he told the BBC. "Under the terms of her arrest she cannot invite people to visit her, but she of course did not invite this person to visit her. If somebody shows up at her door step in violation of Burmese law she cannot be held responsible."

Two other women, a mother and daughter who are Ms Suu Kyi's maids and companions, were arrested with her and also face charges, her lawyer Kyi Win said.

Insein prison, Rangoon's colonial era jail, is infamous for its conditions. Several leading dissidents are serving time there. More than 2,000 prisoners of conscience are held in Burma, many in failing health, and in the past year the military has arrested hundreds more political prisoners, including monks, celebrities and NLD members.

The elections are the next stop on the regime's "road map to democracy", but they are being held according to a new constitution which assures a powerful presence for the military in parliament.

John Yettaw: The American visitor

John Yettaw, the man who swam Inya Lake last week with the help of homemade wooden flippers is a 53-year-old Vietnam War veteran with six children who is researching a book about human rights abuses.

An Italian who met him said: "He was collecting stuff about victims of torture and inhumane treatment to write a no-profit book."

His ex-wife, Yvonne, from California, said she had no idea what he was doing in Asia. She said he was "on disability" and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. He is reportedly a Mormon.

In an email to the Associated Press, his stepson Paul Nedrow said: "John is harmless and not politically motivated in any way. He did not want to cause Suu Kyi any trouble... He is a diabetic and this could cause him to become disoriented and confused."

Kyi Win, one of Aung San Suu Kyi's lawyers, said: "Everyone is very angry with this wretched American. He is the cause of all these problems. He's a fool."