Last week I was in Cedar City for my annual visit to the Utah Shakespearean Festival, which has brought a lot of pleasure to my family for the past 24 years, thanks to the nearly 50-year-old impossible dream of a returned missionary, Fred Adams. His success is, today, an interesting counterpoint to other impossible dreams.
There is something very human in seeking an impossible dream, especially when that dream includes a noble goal, even if the goal isn’t reached. In Mormon culture we have our own version of this impossible dream. To be truly Mormon, our dreams must originate in inspiration or revelation, something that comes from beyond ourselves. That is the pattern in our myths. Even the Joseph Smith story might be considered a kind of impossible dream—an inspired vision from God that succeeded beyond any reasonable expectation.
For much of the past four months I’ve been following the impossible dream of another Mormon and its difficult denoument. While I’m not sure that the dream of John Yettaw was inspired, in a Quixote-like sense it was very noble, and given our inability to know what would have happened, it might have been successful. Without that knowledge, Yettaw is now known as a fool and imbicile among supporters of democracy in Burma, and among observers worldwide.
How and when Yettaw got his inspiration isn’t known. He first traveled to Burma in November of last year, and was able to visit the lake-side home of Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, but left a copy of the Book of Mormon when he wasn’t able to speak to her. Apparently encouraged by the fact that he wasn’t caught, or further inspired, the 53-year-old Yettaw returned in May, convinced that Suu Kyi would be assassinated and needed to be warned. He swam, with the aid of home-made flotation devices, 2 kilometers across the lake to Daw Suu Kyi’s home despite his diabetes and occasional seizures (from a head injury he suffered while serving in the U.S. military in Germany during the Vietnam War). This time he met and warned Suu Kyi, who tried to get him to leave. Yettaw was then caught and arrested as he tried to return across the lake.
Until the visit of Virginia Senator Webb yesterday, Yettaw was in Burma’s infamous Insein Prison, at first awaiting trial, then begining what was to be a seven year sentence for violating Suu Kyi’s house arrest, violating immigration laws, and swimming in a restricted area. According to Burmese authorities, he fasted for 62 days of the nearly 4 months he was incarcerated (the authorities say he claimed the fast was for religious reasons), and spent several days in the hospital near the end of his stay after going into convulsions. His efforts created an international incident, with human rights groups decrying his effort, the Burmese government suggesting that he was part of a plot to embarrass them and democracy supporters there claiming that he was a government lackey creating an excuse for the government to keep Suu Kyi out of upcoming Burmese elections.
Despite all this, the most plausible reason for his actions is, in my view, the claim that he was trying to help. That he had the impression that Suu Kyi would be assassinated. As an outsider, one with an admittedly limited understanding of Burma, it seems plausible. The Burmese junta has been in power since 1962, and has held Suu Kyi in prison or under house arrest for 14 of the last 20 years, since she won a 1990 election to the presidency of Burma and was not allowed to taken office. An assassination would remove a perpetual thorn from the junta’s side. At their recent trial, Suu Kyi was given an additional 18 months of house arrest, which keeps her from participating in next year’s election, but has kept Burma, Suu Kyi, the junta, and even Yettaw under international scrutiny for several months. Did all this save her life? I have no idea, and I don’t believe anyone but the Lord knows.
Despite the international attention, Burma is likely to continue to be ruled by this junta. Nicole McClelland on The Daily Beast explained why:
Burma’s home to some of the largest natural-gas reserves on the planet. In 2008, it experienced a 250 percent increase in the number of Chinese companies involved in mining, oil and gas, and hydropower development over the year before; trade between the two countries is up to $2.6 billion, from $630 million in 2001. Japan (along with China and Russia) rejected a proposal to bring a draft resolution on Burma to the Security Council in 2006, pandering to the regime, some analysts say, in an effort to counter Beijing’s influence on it. And Thailand has the rights to nearly two trillion cubic feet of natural gas in one Burmese concession alone. Last year, more foreign companies had invested in Burma than ever, and Burma’s neighbors—energy starved, overpopulated neighbors—are not about to just pull their money out because the U.S. and EU keep telling them to.
Especially considering that the U.S. and EU aren’t pulling their own money out, either.
From a Mormon perspective, Yettaw seems to make many church members uncomfortable. His approach seems to follow Mormon views about inspiration, but violate our cultural beliefs about how to approach a problem — legally and through proper channels. And then there is the question of the inspiration itself. Most Mormons reject the idea that his inspiration could be true, because we are taught that inspiration is limited to our own stewardship–to our own business, not that of others. But I’m not sure that our belief is quite that simple. We teach that we should pay attention to promptings that tell us to speak to those we meet on the street, or act to help those around us. Is what Yettaw did significantly different than that? The more I think about it, Yettaw’s inspiration seems only different in degree. And if Suu Kyi isn’t in Yettaw’s stewardship, whose stewardship is she in?
To me, Yettaw does seem like a kind of Mormon Don Quixote. I can’t say that his inspiration was true, or that he approached the situation as he should have, or even that his actions were successful in preventing an attempt to assassinate Suu Kyi. It seems likely that his efforts, as noble as their motivation was, were a failure. But somehow I still admire his attempt. I wish more Mormons were willing to follow their impressions to change the world.