Over the last couple weeks, The Irrawaddy has conducted two exclusive interviews with Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
"I want to see unity."
Aung San Suu Kyi speaks with Irrawaddy Editor Aung Zaw about the continuing process of national reconcilliation. "I see us in five years’ time as struggling, but I hope struggling happily and with liberty." Tony Broadmoor sits down with Aung San Suu Kyi at the National League for Democracy headquarters in Rangoon.
Aung San Suu Kyi: "I want to see unity"
In an exclusive interview with The Irrawaddy, Aung San Suu Kyi spoke over the telephone with Editor-in-Chief, Aung Zaw. Burma's pro-democracy leader discusses the next steps that are required for national reconciliation, Burma's relationship with Thailand, the role of the press, and called for the unity of all the peoples of Burma.
Q: The military government and your party have both said that the phase of confidence building is over. But there is still a lack of confidence between the people and the government. Can you explain more about the confidence-building process?
A: We can consider the situation in this way: Trust building is a never-ending process. It is a continuing process even between a democratic government and its peoples. We hear it so often. When the people lose trust in the government, it loses power in the next election. If we think about trust building in this way, it is something that has to be carried out on a continuing basis. We accept this as a fact. But what we are specifically referring to is the confidence building (not trust building) that started in 2000 between the Burmese military junta and the NLD.
Q: What about restrictions imposed on you and the NLD? Have the authorities lifted restrictions on you and the NLD? If there are no restrictions, can you publish a newspaper? Press freedom is very important and I believe it must play a role to promote democracy and national reconciliation. Burmese people have a lot of things to discuss in the media.
A: First of all, I have not heard the regime mention anything about lifting restrictions on the NLD. My release has been unconditional …. The regime has not said that all restrictions on the rights of the NLD have been taken away. That’s why we have stated up until now that we will work for the freedom of not only the NLD but also other political parties.
Regarding the dissemination of information, we will apply for the right (to publish a party newspaper). We have a plan (to do so). We’ll see whether this will be allowed. As you mentioned, we have already accepted that there must be freedom of expression and (dissemination of information through media) to bring about a democracy.
Q: What do you think of the Myanmar Times? Have they ever approached you for an interview?
A: A reporter from the Myanmar Times came to my press conference when I was released on May 6. We know that it is not only us but also the Myanmar Times that has to endure censorship.
Q: There have been continuous human rights violations taking place in the provinces and in prisons. The NLD always spoke out against these human rights abuses in the past in official statements. Will you continue to raise these issues? Do you have any plans to cooperate with the government in order to reduce these abuses?
A: Regarding the release of political prisoners, we have prioritized it as one of the most crucial issues—that they are all released unconditionally and at the earliest possible date. The Burmese junta knows it as well. This happens to be one of the things that I have mentioned again and again since I was released. We are totally frustrated at the slow progress in the release of political prisoners. We want them to be released immediately and unconditionally.
The fact that we have not issued any statements (regarding the status of the talks) is not because there was an official agreement (between the junta and the NLD). Let’s just say it is an understanding. In an effort to build trust during the confidence-building stage, the regime stopped publishing slanderous articles about us; it was their own decision, and not because we asked them to do so. When the authorities stopped attacking us, in return we also stopped criticizing the activities of the regime by discontinuing our statements. However, this does not mean that we have stopped speaking out against the injustices and human rights abuses. We have informed those who should be informed on these matters.
Q: I now want to ask you about Asean and Thailand. What do you think of Mahathir Mohamed's back door policy toward Burma? What is your opinion of the Thaksin Shinawatra government in Thailand?
A: Regarding the peoples of Asean, we deem it best if we can all build close friendship among ourselves. Particularly, Thailand is one of our neighboring countries. This is not going to change; it will be our neighbor as long as the world exists. That’s why it is of the utmost importance to develop a good relationship with a neighbor (like Thailand). My take is that we’ll have to wait and see at the moment. It’s a little too early to comment. I think that Thailand has changed its stance with regard to the NLD, which has been working for democracy inside Burma. I mean the change has been positive. However, it is still too early to say much in regard to this question.
Q: In 1995, you have said that Thai people were supportive of the democracy movement in Burma.
A: I truly have a positive outlook on the peoples of Thailand. We want them to reciprocate in the name of understanding and friendship. I understand that our problems spill over the border. All of us will have to cooperate so as to prevent such spillovers happening in the future.
Q: What do you think of exiled activists, politicians and organizations? Do you think they will have a role in Burma in the future?
A: All the people of Burma will have a role in the future of our country. If anyone wishes to participate (in the affairs of the country), he will have opportunities. But if you ask me what I think about organizations both within and outside the country, what I want to say is, I want to see unity. Because we have so many organizations, we can experience differences in opinions. We all want democracy. If we cannot bring about unity and understanding at a crunch time like this, it will be more difficult to do so when we return to normalcy.
Q: You are now rebuilding the NLD party. How do you respond to the criticism that the party’s leadership is aging and that mid-level leadership is not strong enough to replace older leaders?
A: I don’t see it that way. I don’t understand why we are asked sometimes why the older leadership is not replaced with young blood. It is true that the NLD leaders are old, but they are quite competent. In addition, it is the youth and those in middle age who have always supported our work. I believe that if they are very competent and clever, they will have opportunities in the future to make it to the top.
This interview was conducted by phone. It was also broadcast on Radio Free Asia [RFA]. [Top]
"I see us in five years’ time as struggling,
but I hope struggling happily and with liberty."
Freshly released from nearly two years under house arrest, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi sits down with Tony Broadmoor for an exclusive interview at the National League for Democracy (NLD) headquarters in Rangoon. Speaking shortly after a trip to the party’s office in Shwe Pyi Thar—the first time in 13 years that she has been free to visit another NLD office—she discusses the current state of the NLD and the challenges that lie ahead.
Q: You have an incredible grassroots following right now that seems to be nearly 100 percent when you go around the country and talk to people. I realize the majority of these people are not registered members of the NLD or other opposition parties. How can you harness this force? What needs to happen to make these voices heard?
A: Well, this is the main reason why we have been working for the rights of political parties to operate freely, because in any country the only way you get the people to have a voice is through political parties, and that is our prime motive in asking that political parties be allowed to operate freely. This is why the NLD has been struggling over these last years to carry on, that we may have the opportunity to give a voice to these people. Mind you, I don’t think we are the only political party that can do it. I think especially in the ethnic nationality areas they have their own parties, which should be allowed to operate freely.
Q: During the 20 months of the talks, did you detect an element of sincerity from the generals? Was there any change in their attitude compared to your previous encounters?
A: I think you have to say there is a change in their attitude; otherwise we wouldn’t be where we are. And as to the matter of sincerity, this is for time to give the answer.
Q: Do you see your release as a face-saving gesture for the United Nations and the SPDC, or is it a genuine sign of progress? What do you think of the role of the UN special envoy?
A: I don’t think it was a face-saving gesture for either, because I don’t think it is face saving that is involved. We have faith in Mr Razali’s goodwill, but certainly we have confidence that the United Nations wants what is best for Burma and that the United Nations wants to implement what is spelled out in the United Nations’ resolution on Burma. And we look upon Mr Razali as a man of integrity who is truly interested in bringing about desirable change, so I certainly don’t think this is a face-saving gesture on his part and on the part of the SPDC.
Q: What might push the SPDC to change?
A: I think the impetus behind any decision to change is the realization that either change is really for the best and you accept what is for the best, or you see that change is inevitable and you decide to gracefully go the way of change. This is usually the reason why people change—because they think it is for the better or because they think they cannot avoid it.
Q: Do you feel that there are members of the regime who recognize the magnitude of Burma’s social and economic crises and truly want peace and change, but are afraid to speak up—people who ultimately support you and what you stand for?
A: I don’t know whether there are people [in the military] who support me, or who support the NLD, but certainly I’d think there must be people who realize the enormity of our economic and social problems. Whether or not they dare to speak up, and why they would not dare to speak up if they do not dare, that one would only know if you had an inside knowledge of the regime, which I certainly do not have.
Q: You have stated that your release was "unconditional". However, [NLD Secretary] U Lwin told me earlier this week that the government did set one condition: that you are "not permitted to disturb the peaceful situation in the country". Can you comment on this?
A: Well, I think you will have to ask U Lwin about it because I don’t know to what he is referring at all.
Q: You are now calling for an immediate start to the next step of the reconciliation process. Have there been any developments over the past few days?
A: We have nothing to say about that.
Q: In 1999 you said that you felt it would not take another ten years for democracy to come to Burma. Do you have any vision of Burma five years from now?
A: I am not a visionary . . . I can just see us working harder in five years time because this is what everybody has got to be prepared for, to work harder and when we get democracy we have to work even harder. There seems to be this perception in some circles that once we get democracy, we can all sit back and take it easy, but it is nothing like that at all. It means that once we get democracy we have to work very, very hard, much harder than we have ever worked, because we will then have the opportunity to be free to work and we need to work in order to catch up, because we have fallen behind so very badly over the past decades. So I see us in five years’ time as struggling, but I hope struggling happily and with liberty.
Q: What is the next step for the National League for Democracy?
A: Well, the present step at the moment (is to) work very hard to do exactly the sort of thing you were talking about when you asked the first question. To ensure that we are in touch with the people so we can act as their voice, or rather, so that we can make their voice heard. This is why we started reorganizing the party and reopening party offices—not just for the simple joy of hanging up the party signboard, but because we want to be able to work and we want to be able to get to the people. Just now I was at one of our townships reorganizing the youth committee there. We want more young people to be involved because this is our future. And I am very pleased that in spite of all the difficulties, we have young people coming forward prepared to take up responsibilities in the youth wing of the NLD. And we have been reorganizing our township committees. Then we want to go right down to the village and ward level so that exactly the sort of people you are talking about can make their voice heard through us. They can tell us what they want us to do, so that the lines of communication are open.
Q: There seems to be a lack of political consciousness among people under 20 in Burma. Are some of the people joining these committees between 18-25?
A: Yes, teenagers. Most of our new recruits are around that age because our youth wing does not take people after the age of 35. We have to keep filling the places. We have to keep getting new people. We manage. This morning I was taking a look at our new youth committee. There were 14 on the committee and I would have thought that at least half of them were under the age of 25, but I don’t know this just by looking. Some of them look very young. Previously we limited membership of our youth wing to 30 because I think this is the international norm for youth clubs, youth committees. But we extended it to 35 because of the difficulties of getting young people—especially after the regime made it practically impossible for university students to join political organizations. So we extended it to 35, but a couple of years ago I started reorganizing the committees with this in mind. I think some who were 35-plus were not too happy about it, but we have to stop somewhere. Otherwise, you know, our chairman will be a member of the youth wing if we keep on extending it 35-40, 40-45 and go on like that. So I can see the danger of professional youth members.
Q: You have said since your release that your stance on sanctions, humanitarian aid and tourism has remained unchanged. The issue of humanitarian aid is obviously a sensitive one, one that needs to be addressed in the near term.
A: We will keep looking into this issue in a very practical way. We want to look into some of the humanitarian aid projects which are going on in Burma, and we would like to see how effective they are and whether they are getting aid to the right people in the right way. This is something that we keep reiterating—that it is not just a matter of giving aid, but it has to be given to the right people in the right way, which is to say it has be given to the those who really need it, in a way that will strengthen civil society, not in a way which will entrench the people in the mode of totalitarian rule.
Q: Would you support increased humanitarian aid if it could be proven that it was being delivered directly to those in need and not prolonging the regime’s grip on power?
A: Well we have never said no to humanitarian aid as such. We have always said humanitarian aid must be given to the right people in the right way, which of course calls for accountability and transparency. And of course we always say that the minimum necessary requirement is independent monitoring, and this has been our stand throughout. If people thought that we simply said no to humanitarian aid it was a misunderstanding of our position, because we have never said that. We have always said that humanitarian aid must be given to the right people in the right way. That would mean there is a need for transparency and accountability and there must be independent monitoring to ensure that there is accountability.
Q: Some of the aid people I have spoken to are worried that an influx of new international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) could make things more difficult for those already here. What do you think of these concerns?
A: Surely they should not be so much concerned about their role as concerned about the general humanitarian situation. This is something that we worry about—that there are some organizations that are a little bit more concerned about their position, rather than about the common goal. This is human nature. I don’t think that just because you belong to an INGO you are absolutely without failings of any kind.
Q: Do you see a federalist nation for the future of Burma?
A: We think that to be a true and lasting union it would have to be of a federalist nature. I think it is important that the people of Burma understand what federal means. The word federal has unhappy connotations because for some reason during the early days of independence the perception of the people in Burma and in general—that is to say, those who were interested in such matters and understood federalism—they understood federal to mean a system under which each state could opt to secede from the union. This was the unfortunate misunderstanding that has made federal such a dangerous concept in Burma. We have been trying to explain over the years, that is not what federal means. Federal simply means the division of powers between the central government and the state governments, and that the constitution makes it clear what powers the central government has and what powers the state government has and who is responsible for anything that could be termed residual powers. If there is a conflict of interest, there should be a constitutional method, usually through the judiciary, whereby this conflict can be resolved. So this is what federalism is. But unhappily, people in Burma do not understand this. There is still this hangover from the early days when federal was taken to mean the right to secede. But as you probably know, the ethnic nationalities are not asking for secession. They are just asking for their rights within a true federal union.
Q: At Karen National Day this year they were saying "independence no, federalism yes".
A: I think that this is something which is very encouraging for the future of Burma, because the ethnic nationalities I believe are keen to build up a strong and lasting union. This is a very good sign.
Q: You have stressed the need for further releases of political prisoners. Has there been any word on Min Ko Naing or U Win Tin?
A: Ten prisoners were released yesterday, but certainly no word on U Win Tin or Min Ko Naing. We are very anxious that all political prisoners should be released unconditionally and as soon as possible. That has always been our stand.