Missouri man in spotlight at trial of Myanmar democracy leader

Friday, May 22, 2009
Members of Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy gather Thursday near the entrance to Insein Prison where she is being detained in Yangon, Myanmar (Khin Maung Win ~ Associated Press)

YANGON, Myanmar -- The Missouri man whose nighttime swim to visit democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi may cost her a chance at freedom was the center of attention Thursday, as a court in Myanmar showed a home movie he allegedly shot at her lakeside residence.

However, few outsiders were able to view the video because the court closed the proceedings, barring reporters and diplomats after allowing them to attend a single session Wednesday.

The May 3 visit of John W. Yettaw, of Falcon, Mo., about 50 miles northeast of Springfield, has ensnared her in a legal mess that could sink her chances of ending six years of continuous detention without trial. Officials say he was not invited to Suu Kyi's lakeside compound. She has spent more than 13 of the past 19 years locked up because of her opposition to the country's military government.

Suu Kyi, two female members of her party who live with her under house arrest, and the 53-year-old Yettaw are being tried together for violating the conditions of her detention order, which bans visitors without official permission. The offense is punishable by up to five years' imprisonment.

Suu Kyi had been scheduled to be freed May 27, after which the law does not appear to allow her to be held.

In this 2005 handout photo released by his family, John William Yettaw is shown. U.S. citizen Yettaw has been arrested in Myanmar for entering the compound of Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi earlier this month. Yetaw's motives for entering Suu Kyi's compound remain unclear and has angered supporters of Suu Kyi whose detention was under review by the Myanmar government. (AP Photo/Family, HO)

The charges against her are seen by many as a pretext for the government to keep her detained through polls it has scheduled for next year as the culmination of a "road map to democracy," which has been criticized as a fig leaf for continued military rule.

Suu Kyi's supporters suspect some kind of trickery by the junta was behind Yettaw's intrusion, while his family says he is a well-meaning admirer who wanted to interview her, unaware of the possible consequences.

Suu Kyi's lawyers have said she told the uninvited guest to leave, but that she allowed him to stay for two days after he pleaded that he was too ill and tired to return across the lake.

The evidence introduced so far at the trial so far raises more questions than answers about Yettaw. On Thursday, the prosecution spent almost two hours showing a video said to have been shot by Yettaw at Suu Kyi's house during his visit, according to one of her lawyers, Nyan Win.

The video had a voice-over, apparently by Yettaw, which was translated into the Myanmar language in the courtroom.

"The video taken by Mr. Yettaw showed the portrait of Gen. Aung San (Myanmar's independence hero and Suu Kyi's father), a bookshelf and Mr. Yettaw himself standing in front of the portrait of Gen. Aung San.

"He was saying he is now in Yangon, at Aung San Suu Kyi's house and that he asked permission to film Aung San Suu Kyi but she refused. 'She looked nervous and I am sorry for that,' he was saying that, in his video," Nyan Win told reporters.

On Wednesday, 23 objects seized from Suu Kyi's house were presented as evidence, the most striking items being two black cloaks or robes described as being of a type worn by Muslim women, along with scarves to cover the face, two long skirts, and sunglasses.

Clearly implying that they could be used in an escape attempt, the prosecutor asked the police officer who seized the items whether "If a person wears this woman's Muslim dress and sunglasses, will you be able to identify the person?" The officer replied "No.'

Yettaw on Wednesday also offered the first public clue to the motive for his actions, suggesting in a courtroom exchange that he had a premonition someone would try to kill the pro-democracy leader, according to Nyan Win, who attended the proceedings.

He asked his lawyer to question a policeman who was testifying whether the officer had been told by Suu Kyi that he said to her, "In my vision, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will be assassinated, so I came here." The lawyer asked permission to pose that question, but the court declined to allow it.

His wife, Betty Yettaw, has said her husband wanted to talk to Suu Kyi as part of his research on forgiveness and resilience.

"He's a very peaceloving person, well-meaning, forgiving, mild-mannered. He meant the very best for her," she told The Associated Press. She said he had been "somewhat troubled" due to several tragedies in his life, including the death of a teenage son several years ago.

A part-time contractor, he receives veterans' disability payments for injuries suffered many years ago while serving in the U.S. military.

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