How was a retired bus driver from Missouri able to make a flipper-clad, two-kilometer swim to the heavily guarded house of Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung Sang Suu Kyi, one of the world's most famous dissidents? While John Yettaw languished in Burmese jail during his trial for "illegal swimming," all we could do is speculate. But now, in an exclusive interview with NEWSWEEK, Yettaw has offered an explanation: Burmese security officials let him. "I don't know why they didn't stop me," he says. "The man with the AK-47 shook my hand and let me in."
In his first full-length interview, conducted by telephone from his home in central Missouri, Yettaw addressed the rationale for his undiplomatic dip, responding to critics and speaking at length about his commitment to Burma. "I want to free Myanmar. I want to stop the suffering there. I am antijunta. I will never be at peace, emotionally or psychologically, until that woman is free, until that nation is free," he said.
Yettaw burst onto the front pages of the world's papers in May, when he had made an uninvited two-day visit to the home of Suu Kyi. "The Lady," as locals call her, trounced opponents in the country's last open election in 1990, but the junta refused to recognize the results and has kept her under arrest for 14 of the past 20 years for trying to topple the regime. She was due to be released on May 27, just weeks after Yettaw showed up, well ahead of next year's landmark national elections—the first in two decades. But earlier this month, Suu Kyi was sentenced to 18 more months of home confinement. On Sunday, Yettaw was freed from seven years of hard labor when U.S. Sen. Jim Webb negotiated for his release; he was deported back to the United States.
A quixotic man who didn't have a passport until last year, Yettaw is an unlikely protagonist on the international political stage. The junta has said it believes that antigovernment activists used Yettaw to embarrass its leaders, while Suu Kyi's supporters say that the government used the American as a pretense for keeping their best-known critic under house arrest rather than risk igniting the opposition ahead of the 2010 elections. Yettaw's family, for its part, doesn't know what to believe. After years of questions that have gone unanswered and behavior that doesn't quite add up, they have come to accept Yettaw the way he is—bighearted but unsteady—without asking too many follow-ups.
Late Thursday night, the 53-year-old Missourian remained an enigmatic figure, failing to clarify lingering questions and offering rambling and occasionally contradictory responses. "I have to be careful what I say or it will hurt the people of Myanmar," he explained, using Burma's other name. Echoing his court testimony, he says he traveled to Burma hoping to visit the Nobelist Suu Kyi—and to warn her that he'd learned, in a divine vision, terrorists were planning to assassinate her. He denied that the military junta ruling the country had put him up to the visit. "I've been accused of being CIA, of being on the books of the junta. The idea is just ridiculous," he said.
Still, the question remains: why didn't guards stop Yettaw as he made his way across the lake to the home of the country's most famous prisoner? Yettaw had made a similar aquatic bid for the Suu Kyi house in November 2008, but he was turned away by her on-site companions. He told family that he had been captured by guards at gunpoint on his way back from her house. The guards, he says, apparently unaware of his first attempted visit to Suu Kyi's house, bought his story that he had fallen into the lake while fishing and let him go.
It's not clear why authorities took a harder line this time, putting Yettaw on trial and ultimately sentencing him to jail. He says he doesn't know, but indicates that authorities did not seem too concerned about stopping him: instead, a group of guards languidly threw rocks at him as he paddled along. "I told [the judge at trial], Haul them in here and ask them for yourself." He added: "Maybe they were just lazy, or untrained or so cocky that they didn't think anyone would try to swim by them," Yettaw said. "Maybe they are so used to people being scared that they didn't expect anyone to do something so courageous."
Yettaw declined to say where he initially got the idea to visit Suu Kyi by crossing the lake. But according to one Western diplomat, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely, intelligence reports show that senior Burmese officials were told to come up with a way to keep the Lady incarcerated, as her May 27 release date loomed. Around a week before Yettaw's second swim, this person says, two men posing as members of the reform-minded National League for Democracy allegedly approached Yettaw in Mae Sot, an untidy border town in Thailand, and told him that the Lady was ready to receive him. (The Burmese government did not respond to requests for comment.)
Yettaw won't say what he and Suu Kyi discussed once he made it to her house. "It is so personal that I have no right to discuss our conversation with anyone, not with my wife and not with my children," he said, adding that he is "brokenhearted" that she is under house arrest once more. Still, he doesn't see his actions as the cause of her predicament. "I didn't put her there. I didn't imprison that woman."
Actually, he says, his visit may have even saved Suu Kyi from the terrorists he believes were out to get her. He is not a hero, though: "I don't like titles. You can call me John." He bristles at the suggestion that he is unstable and possibly mentally ill, as some people, including one of his three ex-wives, has suggested. "I am not crazy. I am not insane. I am not bipolar."
Since touching down in Springfield, Mo., on Wednesday, Yettaw has kept a low profile—ducking out of an airport side door without picking up his luggage in order to avoid the waiting scrum of reporters and photographers. "I was really worried that he would be different or changed," Yettaw's 21-year-old daughter Carley, says. "But he wasn't. It was just like seeing my dad regular. It wasn't a big deal." His wife Betty has also downplayed the homecoming, focusing instead on the financial burden of her husband's long trip. Although Webb helped secure his release, Yettaw had to pay his own travel expenses and foot the bill for a nurse assigned to monitor his health. "They are breaking us," says Betty, who is also keen to deflect criticism of John. "Yeah, [Suu Kyi is] back under house arrest, but people who didn't know where the heck Burma was, who couldn't find it on the map for all their life, now know."
For now, Yettaw is taking his return to America "one day at a time." Later this month, he plans to pick up his three youngest children—he has five surviving kids in all—in California, where they stay with their mother every summer. He also intends to spend some time working on his two book projects: a "dissertation" about forgiveness (although he is not enrolled in an academic program) and a book "about a higher power, about recognizing the bitter and the sweet."
Would he go back to Burma? "Not without my family," he said, "and not without an invitation."