BANGKOK – A weary-looking John Yettaw — sitting in a wheelchair and wearing a face mask to guard against infection — left Thailand on Wednesday, finally heading home after his secret swim to the home of Burma's detained democracy leader landed them both in prison.
Yettaw, who was accompanied by a nurse, said "Love you!" to an Associated Press reporter before boarding a United Airlines flight Wednesday morning. He repeatedly flashed "I love you" in sign language, but made no other comments.
Yettaw, 53, of Falcon, Missouri, was sentenced by a Burma court last week to seven years of hard labor but was deported Sunday after the intervention of a visiting U.S. senator.
Meanwhile, democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and her two live-in aides remain in detention because of Yettaw's visit — a turn of events that the 64-year-old Nobel Peace laureate called "very ugly," according to her lawyers.
Yettaw flew with Sen. Jim Webb to neighboring Thailand on a U.S. government plane Sunday and underwent two days of medical tests at a private Bangkok hospital.
According to Webb, Yettaw had suffered a "medical incident" just before leaving Burma as authorities there read him his deportation order. While in custody in a Yangon jail during his trial, he had had a seizure and was hospitalized for a week. He also reportedly suffers from diabetes and asthma.
Dressed in a rumpled striped white shirt and khaki pants, Yettaw looked pale and haggard Wednesday morning. Asked about his health, he only pointed to the IV needle inserted in the back of his right hand.
The 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, in a business class seat, with stops in Tokyo and Chicago, according to airline officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose his itinerary.
U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Cynthia Brown said she "cannot confirm his travel plans due to privacy concerns."
In early May, Yettaw traveled to Burma and donned homemade flippers for a nighttime swim to Suu Kyi's lakeside home. The bizarre incident led to a trial that sparked global condemnation in which Suu Kyi was sentenced to an additional 18 months of detention for breaching the terms of her house arrest. She has already spent 14 of the past 20 years in detention.
Yettaw testified that he was on a divine mission to save the democracy leader, saying he had a "vision" she was going to be assassinated and wanted to warn her. Suu Kyi testified that she repeatedly asked Yettaw to leave but relented because he complained of exhaustion and she was concerned for his safety. Suu Kyi's two assistants who live with her received the same sentence.
"It's very ugly that the person who caused the problem was released, but the three people in the house remain detained," Suu Kyi said, according to attorney Nyan Win who visited her Monday.
Burma has said that Yettaw was freed on humanitarian grounds and because of his health.
Burma — also called Myanmar — has been under military rule since 1962. The junta last called elections in 1990 but refused but refused to honor the results when Suu Kyi's opposition party won overwhelmingly.
Diplomats and Burma experts widely believe Yettaw's intrusion gave the junta a legal pretext to keep her locked up through general elections scheduled for next year, which will be the first in two decades.
When Webb, a Democrat from Virginia, visited Burma 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 junta's uncharacteristic hospitality has fueled questions over whether this could mark a turning point in Burma-U.S. relations and lead to a softening of longtime sanctions — a prospect academics say is unlikely as long as the junta ignores international demands to free Suu Kyi ahead of 2010 elections.