An American man imprisoned in Myanmar for sneaking into the opposition leader’s compound but released with the help of a visiting U.S. senator headed home on a flight on Tuesday after two days of health checks in Thailand.
John Yettaw, 53, of Falcon, Missouri, was detained in Myanmar for three months after he swam across a lake and made an unauthorized visit to the home of detained democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
He was sentenced last week to seven years in prison, but U.S. Sen. Jim Webb met the country’s military leaders and won his early release Sunday. Yettaw, who is in poor health, flew to Thailand later Sunday and spent two days undergoing tests at a private Bangkok hospital.
Using a wheelchair and wearing a face mask, Yettaw said “Love you!” to an Associated Press reporter before heading onto a United Airlines flight Tuesday morning. He repeatedly flashed the sign language symbol for “I love you,” but made no other comments.
Dressed in a white shirt and tan pants, Yettaw looked pale and haggard. Asked about his health, he pointed to an IV needle attached to the back of his right hand.
A woman who identified herself as a nurse held Yettaw’s other hand as he was wheeled to a business class lounge at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport and told a reporter “he needs rest.”
Yettaw was ticketed through to Springfield, Missouri, according to airline officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose his itinerary.
Myanmar has said that Yettaw was freed on humanitarian grounds because of his health. He reportedly suffers from diabetes, epilepsy and asthma and was hospitalized for a week during his trial after suffering seizures.
Yettaw was apprehended May 6 as he swam away from Suu Kyi’s lakeside residence, where he had sheltered for two days after sneaking in uninvited. He was convicted last week of breaking the terms of Suu Kyi’s house arrest and related charges, and sentenced to seven years in prison with hard labor.
Yettaw testified that he had a “vision” that Suu Kyi was at risk of being assassinated, and he wanted to warn her.
As a result of Yettaw’s visit, Suu Kyi was sentenced to 18 months of additional house arrest. The 64-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate has already been detained for 14 of the last 20 years, mostly under house arrest in her dilapidated lakeside villa.
Observers widely believe Yettaw’s intrusion into Suu Kyi’s home gave the junta a legal pretext to keep her incarcerated through next year’s general election -- the first in two decades.
When Webb, a Democrat from Virginia, visited Myanmar last weekend he was given unprecedented access. He held rare meetings with both Suu Kyi and the country’s reclusive leader, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, becoming the first senior U.S. politician to meet the junta chief.
The senator’s visit has fuelled questions over whether this could mark a turning point in Myanmar-U.S. relations and lead to a softening of long-time sanctions.