In one of her first one-on-one interviews since her release from house arrest last Saturday, Burmese democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi said she was willing to enter a new period of compromise on points of contention with the country’s military government – notably economic sanctions – in a bid to finally achieve national reconciliation in the troubled country.
Suu Kyi said in Monday’s interview that the junta should be held to account for its crimes over the past 48 years of hard-line military rule but not within an overly punitive framework such as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal.
She opted instead for a more South African-style process of truth and reconciliation.
Although Suu Kyi is now free and Burma has held its first general elections for 20 years, the political divide remains as wide as ever between herself and junta chief Senior General Than Shwe.
Suu Kyi says she wants dialogue with the regime leader and, indeed, all political stakeholders in Burma. Whether the military will at last engage the Nobel Peace Prize winner in meaningful discussions to help end decades of disagreement is, of course, anyone’s guess.
We were watching the dramatic end to your 7 ½ years of detention from outside. What was going on inside your house at the time?
For the morning, I just carried on as usual but, of course, I knew that this was the day that I was supposed to be released. Things started moving at around one o’clock when they asked to come and see me. That’s when I knew that this was going to happen. The security officers came to see me at 1 o’clock and I told them what I wanted arranged, but they came at one o’clock only for an appointment, they did not come to let me out until 5 o’clock.
I understand the authorities wanted you to remain restricted to Rangoon to begin with and you declined, is that the case?
Oh no not at all, nothing of that kind. We were simply talking about what time they were coming. And with no telephone, no way of communicating with the outside world, I just said to them that you had better contact my lawyers and ask them to come and so on.
To what extent can you travel outside of Rangoon?
Of course, I plan to travel outside of Rangoon but have no immediate plans because there is so much to do. I cannot start going outside Rangoon before I finish the piece of work I have to do here.
At any stage did you think they would simply extend your house arrest again?
I had always kept that in mind that they might extend the detention for whatever reason. That I had always kept in mind because one cannot tell until the last moment whether or not one is going to be released. From the way they spoke when they came to see me at one point I had a pretty good idea that I was going to be released.
Some people were surprised by the extent to which the junta’s party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, felt it had to manufacture an election result. Are you surprised?
But you see I’m surprised that people were surprised. You are not the only ones. It’s hard to believe that people would go to such lengths … I think this is why people thought that it could not be that bad. Did you see what happened at the 2008 referendum? This was crucial as well because until the first assembly is called, the constitution does not really come into force. So it is just as crucial as the 2008 referendum.
Do you think that it’s possible the opposition can gain increasing ground and space to operate under the forthcoming parliamentary system?
How do you see the coming parliament? How do you see it? Out of a joke comes another joke, I suppose.
Within this newly created political space in Burma could there be room for democratic improvement in five or 10 years’ time?
You said that you have spoken to some of the other parties that took part in the election. And you probably saw that they feel very disappointed … they thought that they would have greater leeway. I think they were surprised. So I suppose it’s better to be surprised before the parliament is called, but I don’t think many people are going to be very surprised about anything that might happen [in parliament].
Do you think the elections and the fact that you are free will provide more impetus for change?
We will have to work at it. I don’t think that things just happen. We have to make it happen. We want to use this. We want to use this as an opportunity for greater unity and greater understanding between the various groups that all want a democracy. It’s not that they choose a different way of getting to democracy, but there are those that are prepared to try anyway and those that feel that trying anyway is not really the answer. They have to be certain that certain basic requirements have to be met.
People who would call themselves pragmatists argue that transforming from a military dictatorship to a fully fledged democracy overnight would be unrealistic. What’s your view on this?
A lot of people use Indonesia as a model when they talk about Burma. We have to remember that there were a lot of things that did not happen in parliament. There were some things that happened inside parliament, but the main impetus for change came from outside the parliament. There were many elections inside Indonesia before they found a model to the point where the outside forces sucked away the status quo. And I don’t know whether the political parties you have met have said this but I have heard them in the media and some of them, well, all of them, said that you work within parliament. But I notice that there are several of them now that are saying that what happens inside parliament is not the only way to democracy. Yes … that one has to work with from outside as well and that is what we have always been saying. But that is not to say that we would not be happy if things could be changed from within the parliament – why not if they choose something for democracy?
If the government showed good faith in opening up the parliament to the opposition parties, do you see the NLD working within this framework?
Well, things would have to change a little bit wouldn’t they? Because let’s just go back a little to the elections. For us an essential part of democracy is choice and by choice we mean free and meaningful choice. It’s no use saying that you can choose freely between a rock and a hard place. You know we want meaningful choice. And elections are simply a means for expressing this choice. You cannot say that these elections that took place in Burma were a means for expressing free and meaningful choice. That the choice would not be meaningful was obvious from the beginning, because of the rules and regulations that were set down. And that it was not free is now obvious now that the elections are over. But we do not stick to the one position for the sake of sticking to a position. If we think that things have changed enough for us to change our position as well, of course we will change. But we have to wait and see. We work and we try to do what we can, let’s say in time we keep our eyes and ears and our minds open.
Have you had any contact at all with the National Democratic Force (the NLD splinter party that ran in the November 7 elections) since your freedom?
No, not at all. And from our point of view it is just one of many parties and we … stick to one policy for all of them. We are not going to treat them differently. If we have good reasons for working together and if we believe that we can work together to promote democracy in Burma and to help a lot of the people then, of course, we are ready to cooperate. It’s difficult for me to give a more specific answer because I don’t know what they really think. I’m not in on their discussions.
If you have a chance to meet regime leader Senior General Than Shwe what will you say?
I think firstly we have to start taking affably. Real genuine talks, not just have some more tea or this or that. We have got to be able to talk to each other. Some say you have to be able to find a common ground but we also have to be able to argue with each other without enmity. I would not say that we have to argue amicably, that would be going too far – but without enmity. You have to be able to talk to each other in a civilised way.
Have you ever had that?
Not on many occasions, but a little bit. I have met him several times and in bits of those sessions we were able to – shall we say – crack the shell a bit.
How do you reach young members of Burma’s armed forces, the future of the military regime?
The age is on our side in that sense because it is the age of technology. They cannot keep even these young people, boys, cut off completely from the rest of the world. And I think they are going to have many opportunities now that we never had in the past simply because of the technological revolution if you like.
The political landscape in Burma has changed dramatically since you were last free. With the elections prompting anger among most of the non-junta parties is there an opportunity now for the opposition to unite?
I think so, I think it’s a good time for us to unite behind certain basic [democratic] principles that we can all accept.
Which would be what?
Elections should be free and fair if they are going to hold them at all.
We are talking about a regime that is accused of committing a number of crimes. In 1990, a senior NLD member made reference to the post-World War II Nuremberg trials and was arrested. Is that the way you saw it and how did that affect your chances of a power transfer?
I was under house arrest then and I do not know what really happened, but what I heard was this: That there was an interview with one of the members of the NLD Executive Committee – I think the interview was in Asia Week – and he talked about the Nuremberg court and this was why things went awry. I have spoken to members of the Executive Committee and there were various versions of what happened and some have said that he did say this and some say that it was all exaggerated. If he did say this then this is not the way that I would have handled the situation. I did not want to do anything like that.
We have seen a lot of countries like South Africa and Cambodia, countries that have suffered dire human rights situations, use different methods for reconciliation and justice. What would you recommend?
I think in South Africa they tried to come to some sort of compromise between accountability and forgiveness and I think that accountability is a good thing, that is to say that you accept responsibility for what you have done. But that is different from meting out grave punishment in a vengeful manner for what has been done. So I think the South Africans worked up to this compromise that – for whatever people did – they must take responsibility for that based on a principle of accountability. We all have to live together and one has to compromise. We have got to think about the future of the nation rather than about immediate gratification in the form of taking revenge. I have to say that I have suffered so much less in the hands of the regime than many others. So it is easier for me to talk perhaps about forgiveness and reconciliation. And yet that is the direction in which my mind as well as my heart takes me.
The military has obviously kept held of power for nearly half a century. Is this power for power’s sake – what are the military’s main reasons for holding on?
Roughly speaking I think that there are two views: Number 1 – those who think that they are afraid of being held accountable; Number 2 – those that say that they do not want to lose their privileges and power. These are roughly the two views, but it could also be a combination of both.
Do you sense that the junta fears accountability?
It is possible, but I have to say that the people with whom I have dealt, I never felt that fear greatly with them, but it may be perhaps that I was out for vengeance.
In terms of sanctions, do you think it is something the NLD will soften on?
We have not ever thought of sanctions as something that we should hold onto indefinitely, you know, for eternity. Obviously there has to be a time when we must rethink the situation. What I said yesterday, I don’t know if I was saying that in Burmese or English. If the people feel like they have suffered, and they have good reason to think, that sanctions are hurting them then certainly we will reconsider our standard – but not just because people criticise us for supporting sanctions. But we are not going to say that we accept no criticism, this is our standard and we stick to it. The most important thing is whether or not sanctions are really hurting the people and if they have good reason for thinking that sanctions are not helping at all then, of course, we must rethink the situation.
From speaking to people and your perceptions after talking to people, do you think that sanctions have made any progress in changing Burma and is it possible sanctions could be hurting your own people?
Actually, I have never come across ordinary Burmese saying that sanctions are hurting them. Actually, most of the noise comes from the political front. Well I read a report … in which they said that the sanctions had very little effect on the people’s lives in general. This is not a new report and I have to get the latest on this but as far as I understand I think … [it] said that sanctions had very little effect on ordinary people and had very little to do with the present economic situation in the country.
Senior members of your party have revised their rigid stance backing a tourism boycott in Burma. What’s your position?
I have not discussed it with them. I think what they mean is that they would like more people like you coming in! You cannot have any arguments about that.
You have always been fearful of travelling overseas in the past based on the likelihood the authorities would not let you back into the country. Do you plan to go overseas this time round?
That is always a possibility and I really cannot take that risk.
You said before you would start up a Twitter account. How’s that going?
Just before I saw you … I was discussing this matter with our young people who are experts with these things and Twitter may not be very practical to use here … its accessibility. A lot of young people here said that Facebook is easier for them. So the old are in favour of Facebook. It’s the one thing that never gets shut down.