September 19, 2012

During all her years under house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi resisted getting a dog for company.

“I did not think it would be fair to the dog,” she told Post editors and reporters Wednesday during a visit to the newspaper.

Now she is free, on her first visit to the United States in four decadesshe was awarded Congress’s highest honor Wednesday afternoon, the Congressional Gold Medal — and she has a dog. Fairness is still very much on her mind, as she tries to help engineer an improbable peaceful transition from dictatorship to democracy in her Southeast Asian nation of 50 million people.

I have been writing about Aung San Suu Kyi for many years, but we had never met. In person she is as advertised, only more so: serene but sharply intelligent, confident but with self-deprecating humor, spiritual but intensely pragmatic.

“The greatest human quality is kindness,” she said, sharing one of the lessons learned during nearly two decades in isolation. “It costs people nothing, and I don’t know why people are so miserly about being kind.”

This is her principle for living a good life but also, as it happens, her considered strategy for promoting political and economic change in Burma, which has been ruled by military dictators for half a century, most of its post-colonial existence.

The generals and former generals have opened some space. They have released some but not all political prisoners, allowed Aung San Suu Kyi and some of her party colleagues to contest a minority of seats in the legislature and relaxed censorship without undoing censorship laws. But they remain in control, and the hardest test may not come until possible elections in 2015.

Aung San Suu Kyi has made herself a partner of the reformers in the regime, notably President Thein Sein, to the point that some longtime supporters are discomfited. They wonder how she can call for lifting sanctions while the shoots of democracy are so fragile, why she does not speak out more strongly against abuses of ethnic minorities.

“It is not condemnation that is my forte,” Aung San Suu Kyi responded. “If condemnation is going to remove us further from reconciliation, I do not see the point in it.”

In our meeting, she was resolutely positive. Businessmen disparaged by many as regime cronies deserve a chance in the new economy, she said. House arrest wasn’t necessarily meant as punishment: “They just wanted to keep me from what they would see as making trouble.” The regime sought an opening to the West not to resist Chinese domination but out of concern for the nation’s poverty after years of economic sanctions.

The nearest she came to a disparaging comment was when I asked about working in Burma’s monumental and largely uninhabited new capital. “My dog loves it,” she said. “I have rather more reservations than he does.”

She agreed, in response to another question, that many Burmese suffered under the regime more grievously than she, but even for them she defended her call for “restorative justice,” not retribution.

“I don’t think just because one person is hurt, you can remove that hurt by hurting another person,” she said.

No one can doubt the sincerity of her insistence on forgoing bitterness, all the more remarkable given how close regime thugs came to killing her in 2003 and how many of her comrades were tortured in the notorious Insein Prison.

Nor could anyone doubt that her insistent positivity fits with a political strategy focused very much on the long view. She believes that the regime cracked open the political system partly because it had come to trust its own propaganda — to think that the regime was more popular than it proved to be, and her National League for Democracy (NLD) less. When the NLD won 43 out of 44 seats contested in an April by-election, “it seemed to come as a shock to some of them,” she said.

Now that the generals understand that the NLD remains as popular as it was in 1990, when it won a landslide victory promptly annulled by the regime, why would they permit an election for the full parliament that could lead to a change of power?

“I hope they will not look at my popularity but my desire to cooperate with them,” she answers. “I want reconciliation.”

She has studied other nations that have made or attempted the transition: South Africa, Indonesia, Cambodia, Chile. She knows how hard it is, and how Burma has only begun. To help move down the path, she is remaking herself from icon of freedom to something arguably more difficult: politician.

“I am in favor of steps that will bring about harmony in the long run,” she told us.

fredhiatt@washpost.com

Fred Hiatt is the editorial page editor of The Post. He writes editorials for the newspaper and a biweekly column that appears on Mondays. He also contributes to the PostPartisan blog.