Sunday, September 30, 2012

26-9-2012 A Conversation with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi

Bill Keller
September 30, 2012,
Following is a transcript of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s meeting with editors and reporters of The New York Times, Sept. 26.

Q: A year ago, if someone had said Burma would be where it is today, they’d have been locked in a lunatic asylum. What do you think convinced the old regime that it was time for change?

A: I think these things take on their own momentum. I think they had not expected to move so quickly. But, particularly after the NDL [her party, the National League for Democracy] agreed to take part in the elections, this together with the desire of the government to institute economic reforms, these went together. And then of course there was the legislature. The legislature has turned out to be more workable than I would have imagined, in a democratic way. All these things took on their own momentum, I don’t think anyone decided that they’re going to go at this particular speed.

Q: Is it fair to say the sanctions worked?

A: Yes, I always say that sanctions work. Not in the way people think it did. Now the emphasis is on the economic effect of the sanctions, but I always quote the IMF by saying that for years IMF reports have consistently made the point that the sanctions have affected Burma’s economy very little and it was mismanagement that put us in a terrible mess. But partly, the regime started believing their own propaganda that sanctions are responsible for the ills of the country. This always happens. I think the eagerness to go ahead economically, I think the perception was that if you improve the economy, everything else would improve. I don’t subscribe to that view, I think you need political reforms as well as economic reforms. So the sanctions needed to be removed, because a lot of people saw them as an obstacle to progress.

Q: So the sanctions hurt ordinary Burmese but they helped evoke change?

A: I do not think sanctions hurt ordinary Burmese, as much as the IMF has gone into this and they have concluded that they did not hurt ordinary Burmese. If you remember, the garment industry had a setback after 2007 [when the U.S. prohibited imports] but it picked up very quickly… I think it had picked up within a little over a year.

Q: How quickly do you think the administration is going to move to lift other sanctions?

A: I think it’s going to move quite quickly. I’ve said I think they’re just waiting for the president to make his speech to the [U.N.] General Assembly before announcing that they would lift them.

Q: Can you talk about China’s role? Will there be conflict over Burma between China and the US?

A: There does not have to be. I have to keep reminding people that before we had a military regime, when Burma was a practicing democracy, we had good relations with the US and with China. I don’t see why we shouldn’t continue to.

Q: The Wethmay mine, what’s your analysis of the situation?

A: We have to go back a little, this is why I’m keen on transparency, especially with regard to the extractive industries, because of the opacity of contracts and the way business deals were made, people discovered too late what was going on and discovered they didn’t like it. It leads to all kinds of problems. In the end it’s transparency that will lead to economic harmony, not just political harmony.

Q: Are you going to run for president?

A: You don’t run for president in Burma, it doesn’t work like that. It’s not directly elected.

Q: Do you aspire to be president?

A: I must say that the leader of every political party must aspire to be the head of state; otherwise he or she would be letting the party down.

Q: In the next round of elections will there still be spots reserved for the military? How do you bring them along?

A: According to this constitution, the military must be given 25% of the seats in all assemblies, national and regional. We’ve been open about the fact that we want to amend the constitution to make it more democratic in spirit as well as in practice. We’d like to do this with the cooperation of the military. We can only do this with the cooperation of the army itself. So we have to work together. There are some that would say how could we do that; the army would make sure that it would have this influence in the legislature, why would they let go. But I think if they understand why it is not desirable for a democratic legislature to have so many seats reserved for a particular block, I think they’ll start thinking again. And I don’t think that’s the most important thing that needs to be changed in the constitution. There are other provisions such as the right of the commander in chief to take over all areas of government. But these I think we’ll have to change in consultation with the military. And we’ve ben in the legislature a little over 2 months and we’ve met members of the military block. We’ve not been able to establish what we can call close relationships but we have a civilized relationship and I have great hopes that we will be able to understand one another better because as you get to know them you get on better terms. I find our relationship improves rather than deteriorates as we get to know one another.

Q: Do you think the generals have had that point of view for a while and can speak up now, or did something change them?

A: It’s a little difficult to say because I think there are people who always go along with others whether or not they like the situation and I think those people will always go along with the rest of the crowd as it were. But if they’re given the opportunity to bring about changes then they might start rethinking the whole situation for the better. Basically the problem is one of mind set. Even those who want to bring about reforms now, their mind set is very much that of military dictatorship so I don’t think it’s that they don’t want reform, so those that don’t seem so enthusiastic about it, perhaps they don’t know how to do go about the reform process.

Q: Talk about the Rohingya [Muslim minority in Rakhine state, in western Myanmar.] There’s a sense of disappointment that you haven’t been outspoken about human rights abuses against them.

A: I’ve always spoken out against human rights abuses but not against a particular community. That I’m totally against and I know that people want me to, they want strong and colorful condemnation, which I won’t do, because I don’t think it helps. If you condemn one community that makes the other community more hostile towards that community, not towards to me. People forget that when they condemn one community that community gets very resentful. This has actually taken place in Rakhine. Some Buddhists there feel resentment because they feel so much sympathy has been given to the Muslim community when they too are poor and underprivileged. And of course in the recent troubles violence is committed by both sides. So how am I supposed to condemn one side when violence was committed by both? Basically I’m against all human rights abuses and I strongly stand by the principle that human rights must be protected by the rule of law. But I do not think that condemning one community is going to help the other or vice versa.

Q: So how do you bring reconciliation?

A: It’s not going to happen quickly. I think you have to be practical. These communal problems have been going on for decades and we’re not going to be able to reconcile them in one night. This is why I concentrate on rule of law. Because you have to bring down tensions. The present round of problems started with a case of rape as you may have heard. If action had been taken promptly, if justice had been shown to be done, I think it would not have escalated to this extent. Because it was perceived that justice was not done people wanted to take justice into their own hand, which is not justice at all. And this led to an escalation of violence, it was tit for tat. So we keep emphasizing the need for the rule of law. And once tensions have gone down, then we must think about how to proceed. It must be based on sound citizenship laws. There’s a sense that these people do not belong to Burma. But then who, who are they? And of course Bangladesh says they don’t belong to them either. And this ahs a lot to do with the fact that the border was not properly policed. And each side can claim that they have nothing to do with whichever community they don’t want to have anything to do with.

Q: Would you favor some kind of federalism or regional autonomy?

A: The NLD has always favored a federal union. This would be supported by the majority of people in Burma because there were years of propaganda in which they equated federalism with the right to succession. We’ve been trying to make people understand that this is not what federalism means. It just means a system where the powers are divided between the federal and regional governments and right of succession may or may not be part of it. Our ethnic nationalities have said that they are not interested in succession. They do not want to secede. They only want their right to exist as an ethnic nationality with their traditions and customs preserved. This is something we have to work at hard. If we say we’re in favor of federalism, which we said and we were attacked very hard by the federal regime, we were pushing for the union to fall apart.

Q: Back to the mine project, are you saying that contract needs to be renegotiated?

A: This is the difficulty, you can’t just renegotiate a contract, it depends on what was in the original contract, what are the indemnity clauses etc. we know nothing about that. This is why I say transparency is so important for people who wish to do business in Burma; we suffer from lack of transparency. Suddenly something is sprung on us or we realize that things are not going well or are going too far for us to do something quickly.

Q: There have been reports that Burma began a nuclear program. Can you tell us anything about that?

A: I don’t know more about it than you do; again it’s a lack of transparency. What I know I’ve read about in newspapers and journals. The government has said it’s not working on a nuclear project, they were working on a power station. That’s the official explanation. I think you’d have to be in the inner circle to know.

Q: What role would you like the US to play in assisting the transition?

A: I think the political rule is just as important as the economic role. At the moment there’s emphasis on investment, which is natural because Burma’s a completely new investment possibility. And while I welcome investment I’d like to emphasize that we’d like the right kind of investment, the kind that would bring in new players, rather than make the privileged more privileged. We don’t want to see the same faces getting all the economic advantages of the country. We also need investments in other places, particularly in education. Our education system needs to be overhauled, the whole system must be improved from preschool to university level. We’d like a lot of help there. And with regard to the political system, I’m not sure the US is the right place to come to when improving relations between the executive and the legislative branches. [Laughter] But they may engage in quite a lot of disagreement, but that doesn’t mean the whole country’s going to fall apart. We have to learn to agree to disagree but also to do so without fear that the whole country will collapse because we can’t agree about something. I think there’s still fear that if there’s too much disagreement between the legislature and the executive and there were some who were worried that there was friction there in Burma and there were people who were afraid that this would result in a coup and the army would take over. This kind of fear is bad. I think we need to learn from other democracies that you can disagree, very badly, but that that doesn’t mean the whole country has to fall apart or that there has to be an army takeover.

Q: In a country like Egypt, part of the difficulty in the transition has been the military’s role in the economy, their reluctance to give up their influence and wealth. How do you negotiate that?

A: Nobody likes to give up what influence they have. It’s not just the military, also civilians with power, they don’t like to give it up. The army has not said anything specific about how it feels about its economic influences and power in the country. The important thing is that members should feel secure with regard to their future and if they feel secure, these economic institutions will become negotiable. The reason why the army took over such a part was to strengthen their position. Some wanted to get rich just to get rich, but on the whole I think it was to strengthen their position.

Q: How do you make them feel secure?

A: This is something we’ll have to work out, won’t we? We’ll have to make them understand that a civilian government is not there to do them down and that they can work together to make the whole country better for themselves as well as for the rest of the people.

Q: So you’re not thinking of confiscating their wealth…

A: I don’t think we can confiscate the wealth of anybody if we don’t know what they have. In any case I don’t think retribution and vengeance is the first thing on our books. What we want is to build up a society where we can achieve consensus through negotiated compromise. It’s not going to be easy. But in some ways we can do this through shared experiences in the legislature.

Q: People have suggested that one issue in the minds of the generals and former generals was a threat of a war crimes tribunal—can you foresee that?

A: I think some will want that, but I don’t think all.

Q: Would you want that?

A: I wouldn’t but that’s me. I can’t speak for everybody. There would be some who would but I don’t think they would be in the majority. Because the Burmese are pragmatic and we’re not a particularly vengeful race.

Q: Can we come back to China? What has been their advice to the generals on the easing? And is Burma just a pawn in a China-India rivalry?

A: I don’t know whether the Chinese or any other country advised the government with regard to the easing of the situation, that I don’t know. And as for Burma being a pawn, I don’t think we’re going to let our country be a pawn. We’ve been good friends with each country for decades. And despite the fact that there was a military takeover our relationship with neither country suffered too badly. There was a time when India was supportive of the democracy movement in Burma and then relations between the two governments were strained but later when India decided to take a more pragmatic approach and engage more with the government tensions seemed to ease. I think we can maintain relationships with both countries without being a pawn.

Q: Doesn’t China have listening posts on islands off shore?

A: Not that we know of officially. I don’t know if your intelligence is better than mine.

Q: Why don’t you have feelings of retribution?

A: To put it simply, they didn’t treat me badly. I’ll be quite frank. If I’d been put in prison and tortured perhaps I would have feelings of revenge and hatred. But they only put me under house arrest and they didn’t treat me badly at all. I was simply kept in the house. What’s wrong with being kept in your house?

Q: Why didn’t they throw you in prison?

A: I think because I’m my father’s daughter. This is the reason. They did put me in prison for a short period of time.

Q: You’ve said that you’ve been making the transition from icon to politician…

A: I really object to that, I always was a politician. I’m making the transition from politician to icon, I want to get back. I’ve always thought of myself as a politician. After all I went into politics, to party politics, which is about as political as you can get. And I work as a member of the NLD and I’m not somebody apart from it. I’m a politician. I’m here as a politician.

Q: You mentioned some people want reform but don’t know how. Are there any countries you look to as an example? South Africa? Latin America?

A: All of those, as well as Indonesia because that’s close to us. And in Southeast Asia of course, they’ve had a military dictatorship and have had a successful transition, not too painful; all transitions are painful of course. In some ways I think the Burmese model is close to some of the Latin American ones. Although they’re far from us geographically. The geopolitics were completely different in Latin America. We also look to the South African model because the anti apartheid movement success came to them at about the time that our movement started gathering force. Because of that we feel close to South Africa. When I was under house arrest it was in 1989, and soon after Nelson Mandela was released, and then they went onto the elections in 1994 and so on. Because of that I feel close to South Africa because this is what I kept hearing about for years. And many people in Burma feel the same way, because South Africa was working, as we were, for change. Of course there were also the eastern European countries as well but their change came very fast, it was not as drawn out as ours as has been and as South Africa’s was. It’s difficult to say we are like this country. There are things that we would like, like particular countries that we would like our country to be like, in some ways, not in all ways.

Q: Have you had conversations with them, with the South Africans, about how this might work?

A: Yes, and with Latin Americans. I’ve always found them particularly sympathetic starting with Secretary Pérez de Cuellar, they seem to have a feel for those who have suffered under military rule.

Q: Do the military rulers also look to them?

A: Yes I think so, if they look outwards they will see that change is not such a bad thing after all.

Q: The nuclear issue—would Burma benefit from nuclear power and do you see North Korea as an ally in that?

A: I would not like to see Burma in that position. If Burma is trying to develop nuclear energy for civilian purposes that’s a different thing.

Q: So there’s a value in getting into nuclear energy.

A: I do not see that now. I don’t know how much research they did before they went into it because that’s what we’re told, that this was just an effort toward producing nuclear energy, but I can’t say whether or not this is so.

Q: But a relationship with North Korea, that’s not something you would look towards?

A: I would not look to developing a relationship with another authoritarian government after seeing how much we’ve suffered under such governments.

Q: Can you talk about your impressions of this president? He’s a former general, you’re the son of a general…

A: There are generals and there are generals

Q: Yes. But you’ve spent some hours with him. Can you talk about him?

A: I do not know him well personally; I’ve only met him in the line of work. I’d worked with him only once before, in 2001 when General Than Shwe was still at the helm and we were invited to dinner. I remember this general introduced, he used the term this is the new generation when he introduced us to them. They didn’t speak much then, it was the older generation… I only met [Thein Sein] after he became president. The first time I met him it was to do with the new registering of the NLD and taking part in the bi elections. He was very helpful and wanted us to be part of the system as it were. He wanted the party to be registered and to run for the elections. And we came to an agreement about how we could go about this. I’ve had a few more meetings with him which were not as important in some ways, at that meeting we decided it would be possible for the NLA to enter into the legal political process. He’s a quiet sort of person and he weighs his words. He obviously thinks beforehand what he’s going to say.

Q: Can you describe the US role in nurturing the transition?

A: Well first of all the sanctions. They start to assume a tremendous importance. It’s a bit of a mystery to me actually. There was a time, I’ve said this several times, when the state television had a popular singer belting out a song about how they didn’t care about sanctions, this was daily, for quite some time. Then suddenly they decided everything that went wrong in Burma was due to sanctions, I don’t know how that came about. And then of course the United States became very important because without the removal of the sanctions the economy was not going to be able to move forward. I don’t agree with that but this was how we came to have the perception, and then of course reengagement, I have to say I’m totally in favor of engagement, I don’t think isolation helps in anyway, and when the United States started to help, it had a real good positive effect on our democratization process. I’m happy about it.

Q: Should we have engaged earlier?

A: I’ve always been in favor of engagement. I think earlier also the US did what had to be done. It was necessary for us to have the US strongly behind our movement for democracy. And I think if the engagement had gone with the US assuming a neutral position with regard to the movement for democracy I don’t think we would have been happy about it.

Q: Do you have a sense of why Thein Sein decided to take Burma in this direction?

A: I think events took on their own momentum. The reason I think why the president and his advisors decided to change was the country was in such a bad state. The economy was a mess, education systems were nothing to speak of, the health system had broken down, nothing was going right. Even the most hardened military general would have known nothing was going well. And I think reform was needed. But then I think it took on its own momentum. And sometimes I think there is too much emphasis on speed. I think there should be emphasis on order and sequencing, rather than how quickly we can go ahead.

Q: Did the hurricane exacerbate the structural problems?

A: I don’t think it exacerbated the structural problems, but I think it brought in a lot of international NGOs and it helped strengthen internal NGOs. People started to realize that they’d have to help themselves, they couldn’t wait for the government to help them. And that strengthened the move to greater liberalization. And that was empowerment of the people, they learned to empower themselves. But certainly not enough. So I would like to emphasize that our view is that any kind of investment in Burma whether economic or political should be made with a view toward empowering the people and decreasing the dependency on the government.

Q: What do you see as the main dangers facing this reform?

A: Disagreements within the administration itself. I don’t think it’s a great danger by any means, but of course there’s always a possibility, there’s no such thing as an irreversible democratization because we went overnight from a democracy to a military dictatorship. So you can’t say that we’ve reached a point where this process is irreversible. I like to emphasize that we’ve got to work toward a point where reversing would be too hard for people to contemplate. But we can’t ever say we’ve reached a point that is irreversible. So we have to go forward. One step at a time. Of course there are those in the forces for democracy who are not happy with how things are going, those who would like a more militant approach or those who do not trust the present administration. You will have heard that there have been a lot of requests that the sanctions not be removed. I disagree because I think it’s time that we stood on our own feet, and we can’t depend on external pressure forever to take us towards democratization. We would like our friends to stand firmly with us and to keep up an awareness of what’s happening in the country and not take it for granted that the reforms would continue. But I think it’s time we stopped depending on sanctions to carry forward our democratization process. I’m sorry some people feel threatened that the sanctions are going to be removed. How long do we intend to go on depending on these sanctions? I wanted to give the people a chance to improve their economic situation.

Q: Do you have a sense there are powerful conservative forces against this?

A: I wouldn’t say powerful but I’m sure there are. I think there are conservatives on the side of democracy as well. When it comes to movement like ours, the conservatives are the militants ones who think the only way you can bring about change is by bringing down the present regime. I consider that conservatism on the part of dissidents. But in the army as well I’m sure there are conservatives, there are conservatives everywhere. Aren’t there in the US government?

Q: Is there anyone who considers you to be a threat to their political survival?

A: I hope not. I hope if they think I’m a threat they could always come and talk to me about it.

Q: You ran into some opposition inside Burma when you went to Thailand [and urged investment.} Have you been persuaded to change your position?

A: No I’m still advocating cautious optimism. The economists are not talking about a gold rush of investors. We don’t want one like the Californian gold rush bringing in all kinds of investors. At the World Economic Forum I used the phrase “cautious optimism,” and this is translated to Burmese as “good health of negativity”; I think this was a misunderstanding of the expression. Healthy is healthy. As for cautious optimism, one should always be optimistic with caution, especially in a situation like ours, because as you mentioned there are conservative forces, and there are things that could still go wrong, but I have confidence that even if things go wrong for a bit there is enough good will in the country to make the best of this transition. And I think enough good will in the world at large.

Q: Do you worry about raising popular expectations and then people who are desperately poor realize they still are desperately poor?

A: I’ve always realized the potential for this and my campaign; our policy was we don’t make promises that we cannot be certain of keeping. I’ve been very open about this. Burmese people are open and they understand. People want to be treated with respect, which they deserve anyway. If you explain your position to them they understand. I say I can’t promise more than our best; we’ll try our best. And we’re only contesting 44 seats out of the 641 for the national assembly. And with those 44 seats we’re not going to be the government, we’re not going to be able to bring about major changes. But we’ll try our best. We’ll try our best through the legislature to bring about the changes they would want. But I know that even when people say yes yes we understand they do hope and this is why we make a point of trying to implement small management projects that will bring about change in the lives of the people in the constituencies where we’ve won. In mine, we just bought a plot of land and we’re building a vocational training center. And we’ve already started helping some of the free schools run by monks and in some villages we’ve been helping resettlement, in little ways, whatever we’re capable of, because we’re not a rich party and we’re very particular about the money we get. We have to be a clean party if we’re going to survive. So we’re not very wealthy, but whatever we have we try to bring about noticeable change to our constituency. The whole country we can’t do anything yet. The motions we take we don’t usually get through because we are 44 out of 641. But at least people know what we’re trying to do. And one of the positive effects of the NLD entering the legislature is people take a lot more interest in what’s going on there. It’s one of the most popular channels on local television. And there have been a lot of new subscriptions to the channels that show the legislature. So I’m satisfied with the progress we’ve made. And of course I have to say that the speakers of both houses, they’re fair-minded and they don’t treat the NLD as the enemy and that helps a great deal.

Q: Could there be anything else behind the incentives for reform?

A: It could be because of the constitution. The 2008 constitution assures them that they can remain in a position of power. They feel encouraged to go ahead. In accordance with the constitution, the military can take over all parts of governments whenever it feels it’s necessary. So that’s a big mandate. This has given them the confidence to go ahead with reforms because it’s not going to shake their position of power.

Q: The next president is chosen in 2014?

A: 2015. Three candidates are nominated, one by the army, one by the house, one by the lower house. And of those 3 one will be chosen by the joint houses. And it’s not direct, it’s indirect.

Q: You intend to be one of those?

A: I don’t’ think I can be, under the present constitution, because if any members of a family have foreign nationality then you can’t be eligible…

Q: So the constitution would need to be changed?

A: Yes

Q: And how quickly can you do that?

A: It depends on how quickly we come to an understanding with the military. In order to amend the constitution you have to get more than 75% of the votes. Since the army holds 25% at least all civilians and one soldier would need to agree.

Q: You said earlier you don’t know what’s going on in the country…

A: I didn’t say I didn’t know what’s going on in the country; I said I don’t know that’s going on in the minds of the government. Do you know what’s going on in the mind of Obama? It’s normal and natural not to know what’s going on in the minds of those in government but that doesn’t mean you’re going to compromise your own agenda.

Q: You’ve minimized the sacrifice you’ve made—did you ever consider just leaving?

A: No and I never felt unfree. I liked staying in the house and reading. Many people don’t see their families. And my colleagues in prison had it much worse because not only did they not see their families, sometimes they didn’t see their families for years. It was the policy of the government to send prisoners far from their homes. And not only could they not see their families they always had to worry about their safety. I didn’t have that worry. I may not have been able to see my family but I knew they were perfectly all right, not going to be thrown out of their jobs or their homes. I don’t think about this in terms of personal sacrifice. I always say this is something I chose to do, nobody pushed me into it. And I do believe in responsible, the responsibility that citizens should take for their own country. If I believe in this I must do what I can, as others have done.