Aung San Suu Kyi on Burma’s Sweeping Reforms and Whether She Will Ever Be Its President

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Jan. 20 2012 8:20 PM

An Interview With Aung San Suu Kyi

Burma’s Nobel laureate muses on the sweeping reforms in her country and whether she will be its president.

Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Aung San Suu Kyi

Photograph by Frederic de la Mure/AFP/Getty Images.

YANGON, Myanmar.

In the living room of the home where she was held under house arrest for so many years, Aung San Suu Kyi sat and talked about the future. Six years ago, she was allowed by the military regime imprisoning her to receive no visitors. Now she is a free woman welcoming high-level foreign guests, a political star in her country, and possibly a future president. In an exclusive interview with Lally Weymouth a few days ago, she talked about the past and the future. Excerpts:

In the United States, people are asking if President Thein Sein’s reform process is real?  Do you think the reforms are real? And how did your meeting with the president go?

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Aung San Suu Kyi: My meeting with the President went well, and I believe he sincerely wants reform. But he is not the only one in government. Our present constitution gives the military far too much power. Although the president is the head of state, he is not necessarily the highest power in the land. The commander-in-chief can take over all powers of government at any time he feels it to be necessary. That must be very difficult if you are in the position in which our president is. I don’t know how much support he has within the army. He himself is an army man, so I assume there must be considerable support for him in military circles. But that is just an assumption.

If people ask me if they are genuine about reform, I say I think the president is genuine about reform. I think there are those who support him in the government. Whether all people support him, I can’t answer.

I do believe the president is a genuinely good person and really wants what is best for this country.

Do you worry there could be a reversal of this reform process?

I don’t worry overmuch, but I am aware that there is a possibility of reversal. I think we have to work very hard to diminish this possibility—by strengthening the process of reform. I do appreciate what the United States is doing to encourage this process. I think we here inside Burma have to do the major part of the work.

Should the United States lift sanctions and engage?

Engage and lift sanctions when they think the time is right. The United States has laid out very clearly what the conditions are for the removal of sanctions. If this government wants sanctions to be removed, they will have to try and meet those conditions.

One condition was the prisoner releases, and the president did release quite a few recently.

Yes, but not all of them yet. All the major political prisoners have been released. The ones who have not yet been released are not very well known and we are looking into each case to find out why they haven’t been released.  

The United States also wanted …

Humanitarian access to conflict areas and I don’t think they have achieved that yet. The latest problem is the renewed hostilities in the Kachin state.A number of  [ethnic] organizations, including the KMU [Karin Military Unit], have agreed to a ceasefire. Although political negotiations have not started yet.

Your father had a relationship with the ethnic groups. Do you?

Yes, I have good relations with them.

Do you feel you could play a role in bringing about peace and reconciliation between the ethnic groups and the government?

I could play a role only if both sides are willing to have me play a role. I can’t just go in because one side has asked me to take part. The ethnics have indicated they want me to be part of it.

I asked the president if he would consider giving you a cabinet post. He said it was up to parliament.

Quite right. Even if we win all the seats we are contesting, that will be only 48 out of 600 seats. The reason we want to get into parliament is not because we expect to do all our work in parliament. We want to extend our activities into the parliament.

Going back to the U.S. demands—what other conditions must be met?

There should be an end to all hostilities in the ethnic areas. There has been a ceasefire with the KMU but not yet with the KIA [Karin Independence Army]. That is a big problem for the country and a big problem with regard to sanctions.

Senior U.S. officials look to you for guidance in regard to lifting the sanctions.

What they have in me is someone to give an honest assessment of the situation. The situation in the Kachin is a major problem because it is not just the Kachin. If we are to have a genuinely peaceful nation, we will have to resolve these problems politically, not militarily.

The government reportedly has been brutal in the ethnic areas.

Yes, there have been human rights violations and that’s why it’s necessary to allow third-party access to those areas to find out what’s really happening.

What about Myanmar’s relationship with North Korea?

I don’t know any more about it than you do. 

Senator Lugar said a few days ago that Myanmar is developing a nuclear weapon with the help of North Korea.

I don’t know that they are developing a nuclear weapon. They certainly have re-established diplomatic relations with North Korea. That cannot be denied.

Is it true they picked Nay Pyi Taw as the new capital because of an astrologer?

I understand that the previous government was guided by astrologers.

What is the role of the former Senior General Than Shwe? You were released from house arrest before this president was inaugurated.  

Yes, but I think the elections were over so there was obviously going to be a USDP government. We didn’t yet know who was going to be the head of state.

Do you think that Senior General Than Shwe outlined the reform process in his Seven Step program of 2004?

Yes, the Seven Point roadmap was drawn up a long time ago under General Than Shwe.

Did they decide to conduct these reforms because of Than Shwe’s program?

No, I think it is because a new government came into power and because President Thein Sein was at the head of this government. He saw the need for change and reform and he sought to do his best. I think there are other reformers in the government but I don’t think those reformers could have pushed through this program unless he was standing firmly behind them.

Some allege that the regime wants to reform in order to stay in power, whereas you want reforms to create a democratic country, which probably would mean regime change.

That’s possible. It could be true that some reformers simply want to stay on. But there could be among the reformers those who understand that it is time for genuine change. They themselves cannot stay on in government forever. Of course, we don’t take it for granted that everything is going to happen the way we would like it to happen. I think we have got to try our best to make sure that things go along the path that will take us to genuine democratization instead of just a strengthening of the present regime.

Do you think Thein Sein is sort of a Gorbachev?

No, because Gorbachev came into power gradually through the ranks and he had his grip on power quite firmly before he started going toward reform. Thein Sein is in a rather different situation. I think very few people expected him to become head of state. He was not the highest-ranking member in the military government under General Shwe.

You referred to the fact that the army could overthrow this president. What is his relationship with the army?

He is respected in the army, that we know. He is one of the few members of the previous regime who is considered by all to be clean. Not only he, but his family as well and that is unusual.

This is the house you lived in when you were under house arrest? You couldn’t go anywhere?

No. Not unless they wanted me to go somewhere.

How many years did that go on for?

All together 15 years.

How did you keep going?

I had enough to do to keep this house from toppling down. I could listen to the radio and I had access to books from time to time. Not all the time.

Your family was in England?

Yes, in some ways that was good because I didn’t have to worry about them.  At least I knew that they were safe. The first six years I was kept totally alone. The last six years I had two people staying in the house. The first six years really trained me very well.

Do you want to be president one day?

I don’t want to be president, but I want to be free to decide whether or not I want to be President of this country.

If you win a majority of the seats in 2015 as you did in 1990, do you think they would let you assume power?

What we want is to make sure that by 2015 this should not be a question at all. By 2015, we should be certain that whichever party wins the majority in parliament should decide how the government is going to be organized. We have said quite clearly that one of the aims of the NLD is the necessary amendments to the constitution.

We have reregistered our party. I went to register myself as a candidate this morning. We have started campaigning around the country. People have been very enthusiastic. It is very encouraging—all these years and they are still standing solidly behind us.

What about a free press? You don’t have any independent dailies?

There is no real freedom of the press yet. When I was released last year I think we didn’t have half the number of journalists and publications that we have now. Within the last year the number of publications has proliferated.

But they have to submit their stories to a censor.

Yes, the censorship laws have been relaxed considerably. When I was released, I couldn’t publish anything under my name.

Will they get rid of the censor?

They say they will get rid of the censorship or they talk about amending the censorship laws but there shouldn’t be such laws at all.   

Do you have ideas as to how to improve the living standards of the people of this country?

We need to empower the people. One way to empower them is to make them stronger economically. That’s where we would like our friends to help: foreign aid in the right way; development aid that is not frittered away to those who are administering the funds.

Do you favor privatizing the economy?

Yes, but we need sound laws with regard to the economy. We need sound banking and sound investment laws. Only a small minority of our people have anything to do with banks.

What is your view on Arab Spring? Do you think the government in Nay Pyi Taw was influenced by it?

The situation in the Middle East is considerably different. I was heartened that people everywhere want certain basic freedoms, even if they live in a totally different cultural environment. 

I understand that when you met with President Sein last summer he had your father’s picture prominently displayed.

When the military regime first took over, my father’s face was on the currency. It was gradually removed and replaced by the symbol of the USDP. All the photos of my father were taken down from schools and government offices. You were not allowed to put photos of my father in journals or magazines. The meeting without the picture would have meant less.

Were you surprised when you walked in?

I was, yes. I had not expected it. My father’s picture was in the center.

Did you and the president decide you could work together?

I felt I could work with him and I hope he felt he could work with me.

Your first foreign trip will be?

We have to get through the elections and we have to win as many seats as possible because there are only 48 seats going. And even if we win all of them, that’s only 48 out of 600.

So you are not traveling soon?

Not before the elections. I can’t just up and leave. We have to find out what the results are and how to organize ourselves.

Did Secretary Clinton invite you to Washington when she was here in December?

Yes, I would love to go to Washington as soon as possible. Has it changed much in the last 40 years?

Recently you have had many foreign visitors. Hasn’t your life changed drastically in the past year?

It doesn’t seem all that different, except much busier. I don’t have enough time to read.

Do you know how to use a computer?

I do. I learned to work on a computer years before I was placed under house arrest. Fortunately I had two laptops when I was under house arrest—one an Apple and one a different operating system. I was very proud of that because I know how to use both systems. I had no contact with the outside world. But I learned how to use different programs. I would make little invitation cards for myself just for fun. Just to learn how to use it.

You have emphasized the need for rule of law here.

Rule of law is very important. If there had been rule of law, those political prisoners would not have been condemned. As long as we do not have rule of law, people can be re-arrested.

Foreign investors want rule of law and courts.

I have been repeating this over and over. If you want good investors, you have to have clean, independent courts to make sure these laws are obeyed. Courts already exist, but you have to clean them up.

To create fair courts, to create a viable currency, to establish international banks—doesn’t the government need foreign assistance?

We really do need help from abroad.

What do you worry about the most?

I worry that even those who want to reform are not quite sure how to go about it. There is so much to be done: This is why I am keen on an assessment by the World Bank as a first step towards finding out what we need to do.

Some say that the regime undertook the recent reforms because they believe that China is gaining too much influence here and they want the United States and the international community as a counterbalance to China? What is your view?

It’s not necessarily connected with our relations with China. A lot of officers in the Burmese Army have always wanted to have good relations with the US. Previously we have had good relations with the U.S. and some of the generals were trained in the U.S. The Minister of Labor had a stint at Fort Benning.

I heard he is the President’s liaison to you. Is that so?

That is right. He has been the liaison between me and the government for several years—since 2007. A few times a year we had a meeting at a government guest house.

What did you think of him?

He is intelligent, which is a plus. He has good will. He wants the right kind of changes. Before 2004, they had a designated liaison officer. But he was removed.My first liaison officer was a major and he rose through the ranks. At the end he was a brigadier. I knew some of the army quite well. I was the responsibility of the military intelligence.

You have some familiarity with army thinking?

Of course. And you must not forget that I come from an army family.

So they treated you well? They wanted to talk to you and find out if you were going to give up?

They understood early on that I was not going to give up.

[If democracy comes to your country], would you put people on trial for crimes against humanity? You previously mentioned the truth and reconciliation commission in South Africa instead of the Egyptian model of putting people on trial in cages.

I am a great admirer of Desmond Tutu. I like quoting his words that he believes in reformative rather than retributive justice. I think he means it and I mean it, too. I don’t like putting even animals in cages. I would hope that people should be treated with dignity whatever they have done. 

Right now, you hope for what?

I hope to win all the seats in the elections, which are very few.  They aren’t giving it to us. They are going to contest this election themselves [the UNDP, the ruling party].

Do you think you can win all 48 seats?

Has there been a history of a 100 percent win? There are other democratic parties contesting the election.

Did President Obama ask your opinion about sending Secretary Clinton to Burma?

He asked if I thought it was a good idea and I said yes.

And you got along?

Yes, she is very nice and very intelligent. I like intelligent people.

Lally Weymouth is a senior associate editor of the Washington Post.