Politics unfolds very slowly here in Myanmar. The battle between The Senior General (Than Shwe) and The Lady (Daw Aung San Suu Kyi) keeps everything in stasis, the stubbornness of both making advances seemingly impossible.
But the last two weeks have shown that a single rogue element can change everything.
In this case, John William Yettaw, a 53-year-old Vietnam vet from Falcon, Missouri, who swam across Inya Lake into Aung San Suu Kyi’s compound, where she has been under house arrest for 13 of the past 19 years.
Yangon residents read the reports on May 6 with incredulity and suspicion — was it just a government ploy, a trick? With Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest set to expire at the end of this month, it seemed to provide them with the perfect excuse to lock her up for another five or six years.
Initially, nothing much happened. The American Embassy, a lakeside fortress not a kilometre from The Lady’s compound, was denied access to Mr Yettaw. The military government’s mouthpiece, The New Light of Myanmar, was strangely silent on the whereabouts of this “external destructive element” — a phrase it loves to trot out when describing enemies of the state. Debate and speculation has taken place on exile news websites like The Irrawaddy and behind closed doors in the former capital Yangon.
At a friend’s art exhibition on Saturday night, someone said they had tracked Mr Yettaw down on Facebook. Not surprisingly, he hasn’t been adding too many new friends these past few days.
And that includes those in the exile community. The full magnitude of what Mr Yettaw has done only sunk in the past two days, when events have unfolded at relative warp speed.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been arrested for breaching the conditions of her house arrest and transferred to Insein Prison. Along with her two housekeepers, The Lady was charged with breaching law 5(J) — the Law Safeguarding the State from the Dangers of Subversive Elements — which is the government’s weapon of choice when locking up NLD members, bloggers, pro-democracy activists, human rights activists, journalists and so on.
“Everyone is very angry with this wretched American. He is the cause of all these problems,” Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s lawyer, Kyi Win, told reporters. “He’s a fool.”
Mr Yettaw’s motives are unclear. But the fallout of his actions is obvious to those who following Myanmar’s politics.
Under that law, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi can be put in prison for up to seven years. The government will not hesitate to use the charge to lock her up, as they would have been required to release her when her house arrest term was due to expire at the end of May.
While it is unlikely they would have actually released her, they now have a reason not to.
Mr Yettaw has also apparently admitted to visiting once before, in December 2008. This could see her charged with two breaches.
Sentences are not served concurrently in Myanmar, so this could mean 14 years.
For 63-year-old Suu Kyi, who has been in ill health lately, an extended stint in Myanmar’s notorious jails could be a death sentence.
Locals I spoke to yesterday greeted the news with little surprise. There have been the predictable reactions from foreign governments, with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calling for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s immediate release, saying the government was using the incident as a “pretext to place further unjustified restrictions” on The Lady.
Yes. That’s not really at question. The point is, what can be done about it?
Kyaw Kyaw is a Myanmar-based blogger