An interview with Burma’s democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi

Rangoon, Burma

Aung San Suu Kyi sat in the living room of the home where she lived under house arrest for so many years and talked about the future. She is now a free citizen, meeting with high-level foreign delegations; she’s a political star in her country and possibly a future president. In an interview with Washington Post senior associate editor Lally Weymouth on Wednesday — the same day Suu Kyi registered as a candidate for Burma’s parliamentary elections — she talked about her country’s president, U.S. economic sanctions and her political plans. Excerpts:

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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?

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.

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.

Do you worry that 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. 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 U.S. 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.

Do you feel you could you 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 cease-fire with the KNU [Karen National Union] but not yet with the KIA [Kachin Independence Army]. That is a big problem for the country.

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 [state] is a major problem. 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.

Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) has said that Burma 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 reestablished diplomatic relations with North Korea. That cannot be denied.

Is it true they picked Naypyidaw as the new capital because of an astrologer?

I understand that the previous government was guided by astrologers.

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 towards 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 Gen. [Than] 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. How many years did that go on?

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 parliamentary 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 [National League for Democracy] 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?

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 have 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.

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 of the Arab Spring? Do you think the government in Naypyidaw 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 Thein 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 [Union Solidarity and Development Party]. 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.

Did Secretary Hillary Rodham 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.

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 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. 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 U.S. 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 goodwill. 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.

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 [the ruling USDP party] are going to contest this election themselves.

Did President Obama ask your opinion about sending 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@washpost.com

Read Lally Weymouth’s interview with Burmese President Thein Sein.

Read more from Outlook,including Lally Weymouth’s interviews with Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Muslim Brotherhood leader Essam El-Erian, and Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko.

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