By AUNG ZAW
Since John William Yettaw was arrested last week, several rumors and speculations have been aired.
Did he really swim across Inya Lake—some two kilometers—to meet Aung San Suu Kyi? If so, what was his motive? Had he really been there before? Who was backing him?
Unconfirmed reports suggest that he managed to find a way into Suu Kyi’s home once before, but was made unwelcome and told to leave.
This time—according to the rumor mill in my dissident circle—he pleaded with Suu Kyi to be allowed to stay there for a few days. The NLD leader, who is currently fighting for her freedom through legal channels, obviously did not want the American stalker there. Apparently, Suu Kyi’s caretaker even threatened to call the police.
Conspiracy theorists believe he was coaxed into breaking into Suu Kyi’s house so that the regime would have an excuse to extend her detention.
Junta supporters would rather see it as collaboration between the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and a foreign intelligence intermediary—a real-life secret agent, an aquatic James Bond.
As a result, Dr Tin Myo Win is under investigation. Opposition members fear that Suu Kyi’s personal physician may be charged if the regime decides to implicate him in the swimmer’s case.
But informed sources conclude that John William Yettaw is no 007. He is simply a weird character who acted alone.
The American had also turned up in Thailand; he met with some exiled Burmese groups and reportedly told them he was working on a faith-based book on heroism.
They said he is interested in Burma’s plight; that his heart is in right place even if his head is not.
And this is exactly what belies the passion of his action—that he did not think it through; that he did not consider the consequences.
If the regime leaders were looking for an excuse to extend Suu Kyi’s house arrest, he has given them one on a plate.
Indeed, Suu Kyi can be deemed to have broken the “law”—in Burma, you must inform the authorities if you want to invite a guest to stay overnight at your home.
John William Yettaw probably didn’t know this; he apparently didn’t conduct much research into the knock-on effects of his stupidity.
Burma’s pro-democracy movement has long been an attraction for fantasists, fanatics and adventure tourists.
Apart from the usual Walter Mittys that roam the Western world, Burma’s self-appointed saviors have included activists, experts, apologists, lobbyists, scholars, opportunists, do-or-die religious zealots and mercenaries.
While the Karen stronghold of Manerplaw remained undefeated in the early 1990s, foreign mercenaries—or “freedom fighters”—flocked to the border to leap Rambo-like to the Karen front lines.
In August 1999, James Mawdsley, a young Englishman, was arrested in Rangoon after distributing pro-democracy leaflets in the street. It was his third visit to Burma to protest against the military regime. His ambition was to spend time in a Burmese gulag.
He was given a 17-year sentence, but spent only 300 days in Kengtung prison, Shan State, before being released in October 2000 due to mounting international pressure.
Mawdsley was indeed lucky. If he were a Burmese, he would be serving a full sentence and there would be little outcry from abroad.
Unabashed, he later authored a book titled “The Heart Must Break” and threatened to stand in a British election.
“Mawdsley is one of the most outstanding young people Britain has produced since World War Two,” wrote David Alton, an independent cross-bench peer and founder of the Jubilee Campaign, in Mawdsley’s book.
But not everyone was so enthused about Mawdsley’s protest.
The Guardian reported: “In Britain, the response to him was ambivalent. There was a degree of cynicism about his professed Christian zeal, and suggestions that he was reckless to have stuck two fingers up at a dictatorship that has slaughtered thousands of its own people. But there was also grudging respect for his conviction, altruism and bravery.”
I remember a Burmese woman in her 30s who was involved in NGO work at the Thai-Burmese border. Bluntly, she told me: “I could not stand that he was talking about Burma and restoring democracy in my country. He has no clue what’s going on in Burma. I’m not going to listen to what he says and I’ve also told my colleagues not to listen to him.”
She added, “By using Burma and our problems, he has tried to seek fame and personal gain. He was a nobody [in London], but by getting involved in Burma, he became somebody.”
Aside from Mawdsley, there are several other do-gooders who could appear on her hit list.
Another young misguided Brit was Rachel Goldwyn, who was arrested in 1999 for singing a protest song in Rangoon. Her “act of revolution” earned her a seven-year sentence, but she only served two months in Insein.
Shortly before Goldwyn’s petty act of defiance, 18 foreign human rights activists, including a handful of Thais, staged a protest in Rangoon. They were immediately arrested and detained. Again—an international outcry and they were soon on a plane home.
But was Burma liberated?
Critics have noted that these naïve acts cause more harm than good.
Foreign activists know that the Burmese authorities won’t keep them in jail forever. They know that their arrest in Burma will make headlines back home. In his book, Mawdsley discusses the special treatment he received in Kengtung prison. He was allowed to read books, meet diplomats and relatives, and eat Western food.
Former political prisoners of Burma have spoken ironically of these foreign heroes. They noted that if every political prisoner received as much attention as Mawdsley and Goldwyn there would be empty prisons around Burma.
Make no mistake, there is no shortage of foreign volunteers and activists who genuinely want to help Burma and its people. But they do not indulge themselves without considering the effect of their actions on others.
Did John William Yettaw consider the consequences? Did he think for a minute that he would do more harm than good?
Probably not. Next time a foreign activist undertakes a publicity stunt, let’s hope they check the depth of the water before they go swimming.