CAMDENTON, Mo. – The American in custody in Burma after swimming across a lake to the home of detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is eccentric but peaceloving, and had done the same thing last summer in an unsuccessful attempt to meet the Nobel Peace Prize winner, his wife said Thursday.
Betty Yettaw said she's sure her husband, John, is "very dismayed" that his arrest has prompted the Burmese (also known as Myanmar) government to level new charges against Suu Kyi less than two weeks before her yearslong detention had been due to end. She said John Yettaw wanted to talk to Suu Kyi as part of his research on forgiveness and resilience.
"He's a very peaceloving person, well-meaning, forgiving, mild-mannered. He meant the very best for her," Betty Yettaw said outside her home near Camdenton in south-central Missouri. "I don't think he could have foreseen that it was going to be such a mess, that they were going to make such a huge deal out of it.
"He probably thought he would be in and out, and no one would know because that's what happened before."
She said John Yettaw visited Suu Kyi's home last summer, also by swimming the lake, but that house staff kept him from speaking to her.
"I think that's what motivated him to go back. He thought he could be in and out."
John Yettaw, 53, was arrested last week and charged Thursday with illegally entering a restricted zone, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison, and breaking immigration laws, which is punishable by up to one year in jail.
"I guess you tend not to think that it will end badly, but I don't know. I worry about his reputation," his adult daughter, Carley Yettaw, said Thursday. "But I would like people to know that he has no ill intention, that he was not trying to cause harm."
Suu Kyi's supporters accuse the military government of using the incident to keep her in detention ahead of general elections scheduled for next year.
John Yettaw's ex-wife, Yvonne Yettaw of Palm Springs, Calif., said he left his 10-year-old daughter and three teenage sons in southern Missouri before visiting her and telling her he had to go to Asia to work on a psychology paper about forgiveness. He has physical custody of the children.
"He's got four children, and he went out of the country and left the children with friends," she said.
Betty Yettaw, however, said John Yettaw is a good father who loves his children and made sure they would be cared for by her and friends while he was gone.
"He's not crazy. He's eccentric," she said.
She said her husband is "not political at all" but interested in how people deal with stress and abuse of all sorts, which is why he wanted to speak to Suu Kyi.
"He has no agenda whatsoever as far as the country goes," she said. "He really just wanted to have some comments from her I believe."
U.S. Embassy spokesman Richard Mei said Yettaw had no legal representation at his arraignment but that the embassy was trying to find him an English-speaking lawyer.
Betty Yettaw said she was getting ready to send $630 to pay for a lawyer. "We do not have a lot of money," she said, adding that the Asia trip Yettaw made last year has not been paid off yet.
Yvonne Yettaw said her ex-husband said nothing about Suu Kyi when he talked to her. He mentioned researching the psychology paper but said little else about his trip.
"I don't know if this was cathartic," she said from Palm Springs. "But he wanted to return to southeast Asia. He wanted to take some documents and some information because he's doing research on a paper on forgiveness for trauma."
She added, "I was just told that he needed to go." He had been scheduled to return June 24.
John Yettaw has claimed he is a student of the Forest Institute in Springfield, Mo. Officials at the institute, a school for advanced degrees in psychology with about 250 students, said Yettaw is not enrolled there and did not have a degree from there; they said school rules bar them from disclosing whether he had ever attended.
Betty Yettaw said her husband had been working toward a degree in psychology but had not been enrolled in the Forest Institute recently.
Yvonne Yettaw said she was married to John Yettaw for 12 years and divorced him in 2002. They had six children together; one of them, a son, died in a motorcycle accident in 2007.
Yvonne Yettaw, 53, said John Yettaw lived on veterans disability payments and from work as a general contractor.
He got physical custody of the children when they divorced, she said, but she was going to have the children for a while when school ended for the summer. She asked him to postpone the trip to Asia until then.
"He's got a 14-year-old who's graduating from eighth grade, and a son who missed his prom," Yvonne Yettaw said. "He couldn't wait until I could have them?
"I have harsh feelings toward that man," she said.
The family belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Yvonne Yettaw said. She said it was unlikely he was there to proselytize for the church or convert the Nobel laureate.
John Yettaw is borderline diabetic and has asthma, but recently lost about 70 pounds, she said.
"He has asthma real bad, that's why I'm surprised he swam so good," she said.
Betty Yettaw said American authorities have told her he is being treated well in jail, and that prison staff have been monitoring his diabetes.