Burma Part 2: The John Yettaw incident

Friday 2nd October 2009
Burma Part 2 photo.jpg

Click here for Part 1

It could not have been scripted better for the Burmese Generals.

Just two weeks prior to the release of iconic pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi (“chi”) after 14 years in detention, an unbelievable incident occurred that extended her house arrest to 2011 and beyond next year’s election.

On May 3, American tourist and Vietnam vet John Yettaw swam across the lake next to Suu Kyi's house in Rangoon, the country’s capital.

He claimed to have information that an assassination plot was being hatched against her (apparently from a dream), and sought to warn her in advance.

According to Suu Kyi’s lawyer, he was asked to leave straight away but he refused. She decided to let him stay due to ill-health and after two days he swam back. He was arrested upon his return across the lake.

Suu Kyi was charged with violating the terms of her house arrest by 'hosting' an unpermitted 'guest'.

Nobody explained how Yettaw managed to evade detection by the military guards around her house. Many suspect it wasn’t a coincidence that Suu Kyi's house arrest was almost up when this incident took place.

The military government maintain a firm grip on the courts, and a show trial ran until August 11.

The judge overlooked Yettaw’s gate-crashing antics, convicting and sentencing Suu Kyi to another 18 months, which crushed any last hope the suffering people of Burma had of a better life.

Yettaw has since been freed after negotiations between the government and American Senator Jim Webb.

Yettaw returned home to something of a hero’s welcome. His wife claims he is good intentioned, and is someone who gets something in his head and sticks to it. As a result she is very proud.

She maintains the media attention received was good for the country. Yettaw himself claims he would do it again “a hundred times” over.

The US government did not support Yettaw, with Webb stating it was “regrettable” and that he is “not a well man”.

However, the incident has marked an about-face on the US approach to the Burmese government, also known as the ‘junta’.

Secretary of State Hilary Clinton recently announced the US will “engage” with the junta, altering a long-standing policy of refusing to do so.

Obama has sought to distance himself from Bush’s foreign policy, and has pledged 'engagement' with Iran, North Korea and, it seems, Burma.

Suu Kyi has said she welcomes the US talking to the generals, but added that the Obama administration should talk to the National League for Democracy as well (her party) – which is really code for requesting that the US put both the generals and her opposition on an equal footing.

This is unlikely to happen. In fact, Burmese opposition groups fear they might get bypassed by the new policy, which could legitimise the sham constitution and election and negate their years of suffering on behalf of the people.

What exactly is driving this process is not clear. The junta has not conceded to any US requirements, and despite getting a US visa to address the UN General Assembly last week, Prime Minister Thein Sein seemed reluctant to return the favour by releasing Suu Kyi.

The US and the EU have had economic and political sanctions (bans) on the country for years, however these have largely failed for one main reason.

Burma has been able to rely on the support of its main commercial partner and ally China (although, as recent fighting in the north of Burma showed, the junta is still capable of snubbing China when it wants to show who’s boss inside Burma).

China has made Burma a key aspect of its regional and energy security policies.

With the country off limits to Western investors (except for oil giants Total and Chevron, who have investments that pre-date the sanctions), China laps up Burmese oil and gas.

Any day now, construction will begin on a port-pipeline project linking the Burmese coast with Yunnan in China, to save tankers having to go all the way to eastern China.

The project increases Chinese dependence on Burma, and gives the junta some room to play its various suitors against each other – with India, South Korea, Thailand, Singapore and others all eager to grab Burmese resources, sometimes at China’s expense.

The prospect of 'engagement' with the US is something the junta can now bring to the table in its dealings with China.

So, in the absence of any logical alternative, could it be that the US is 'engaging' with Burma to loosen the junta's links with China?

No one knows for sure, and the 'engagement' policy could just as easily be a piece of ill-considered naivety. The junta has little or no regard for international opinion.

In any case, Burma's pro-democracy leaders and its long-suffering people will not benefit any time soon – as already conceded by Kurt Campbell, the US point man on negotiations with Burma.

What offers some hope, however (in the absence of world public pressure), is that the senior regime figures are all elderly, and that a replacement generation might be more open to new ideas. Here’s hoping.

By Simon Roughneen

Simon Roughneen is a journalist currently based in Southeast Asia. His website is www.simonroughneen.com

Photo – Aung San Suu Kyi (left) and John Yettaw

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