Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel peace laureate and chair of the opposition National League for Democracy party in Burma, spoke Tuesday by telephone about her recent trip to China, elections scheduled for November and other matters. An edited transcript is below.
Q: What did you learn on your trip to China?
A: It was a good discussion. We all understand that neighbors have to live in peace and harmony.
Did you discuss the imprisonment of [fellow Nobel peace laureate] Liu Xiaobo?
I have to keep explaining that I never discuss details of my conversation with leaders of governments or organizations. These are usually considered private.
During your imprisonment, the Chinese weren’t supportive of you, and you welcomed when foreign leaders raised the issue of your imprisonment.
Freedom and democracy in each country will be something that their own people will work for. With regard to our relationship with China, it’s always been based on independence, and I believe we can maintain this relationship, even if we don’t agree on the ideologies we wish to practice within our respective countries.
So “freedom and democracy in each country will be something that their own people will work for” — is that the attitude the U.S. should take toward Burma?
I think all people work for what they want for their own country, and of course they do expect their friends to help if they can.
Well, let me ask about your own country.
Yes, please do. I think I prefer talking about my own country.
How likely are elections in the fall to produce a government that’s representative of the people?
Well, we’ve entered a very exciting period. For the first time we’ve started discussing draft amendments to the constitution in the legislature. How free and fair the elections will be will be linked to whether the constitution has been amended to provide a level playing field.
So there’s still a chance the constitution will be amended before the election?
Oh, there’s always a chance. We’re not counting on it, we’re not campaigning for the elections on the assumption that the constitution will be amended. But we don’t entirely shut off the possibility.
If not, can the people’s will be reflected in the president and parliament that are elected?
If the elections are free and fair, of course, the legislature will reflect the will of the people. With regard to the presidency, that will depend on whether the constitution has been amended.
But what about the 25 percent rule [reserving one-quarter of parliament seats for the military]?
We know about the 25 percent rule, but rules, you know, don’t last forever, they don’t have to. And don’t people say that rules are made to be broken?
So if it’s not changed before the election, would the NLD have the political wherewithal to get it changed?
The NLD has stated very clearly that unelected representatives are not democratic, and this will have to be changed. But we have also said that in the interest of national reconciliation, this will have to be negotiated step by step, and we’re not going to insist on all the unelected members leaving the legislature.
In general, how do you view the state of political reform?
What we had hoped for is that the government would enter into genuine negotiations to make sure that the democratization process is a real one. But it has become increasingly obvious that the government is not really very interested in negotiation. . . .
But on the other hand we really hadn’t expected it to be smooth running all the way.
Could the government succeed in stopping the process where it is now, or where Cambodia, say, is now, with a veneer of democracy, but with the government and former generals still controlling most of the economy and political power?
We do worry that the reforms will turn out to be a total illusion, and we think that we need more concrete steps to ensure that the democratization process is what it was meant to be.
But we’re very different from Cambodia. I think the problems are much more difficult to sort out than the problems of Cambodia. The size of the country, the size of the population, the internal wars and battles that have been taking place for such a long time.
Why the rise of Buddhist nationalism?
I think we have to make a distinction between nationalism and extremism, and what we worry about is extremism. Nationalism, when it’s controlled and when it’s used in the right way, that is not a bad thing. It’s extremism that is a problem.
And is it a problem at this point in Burma?
I think extremism all over the world, not only in Burma, in any society, extremism would be a problem.
What’s the source of it in your country? Why are we seeing it now?
Well, I wonder, too. But of course, if you’re talking about the [western state of] Rakhine, these problems have existed for many, many decades. They’ve been simmering for quite some time, and the government has not done enough to lessen the tension and to remove the sources of the conflict.
Do you think the Rohingya should have citizenship?
The government is now verifying the citizenship status under the 1982 citizenship law. I think they should go about it very quickly and very transparently and then decide what the next steps in the process should be.
What do you say to your friends outside the country who say you should have been speaking more about the plight of the Rohingya and other minorities?
We have many minorities in this country, and I’m always talking up for the right of minorities and peace and harmony, and for equality and so on and so on, all the democratic values that the NLD and others have been fighting for for three decades now. We have been subjected to tremendous human rights violations all these years, and so have others, and many, many of our ethnic minorities took up arms because their rights have not been protected.
The protection of rights of minorities is an issue which should be addressed very, very carefully and as quickly and effectively as possible, and I’m not sure the government is doing enough about it. Well, in fact, I don’t think they’re doing enough about it.
What do you mean by “very, very carefully”?
It just means that it is such a sensitive issue, and there are so many racial and religious groups, that whatever we do to one group may have an impact on other groups as well. So this is an extremely complex situation, and not something that can be resolved overnight.
Do extremist parties pose a political risk to the NLD, and could that be one reason such sentiment is being fomented?
It’s possible, because the NLD has never supported extremism of any kind, so extremist groups would not look upon themselves as friends of the NLD, and it’s very possible that there’s a political motive behind the rise of so-called religious movements.
How much of an impact could voter roll problems have?
We’ve studied 10 townships in the Rangoon Division, and in some townships the mistakes were as high as 80 percent. That’s very bad. In some they were as low as 30 percent. How are we going to correct all of these lists in time for the election? And if things are that bad in Rangoon, how will they be in the border areas, for example? The election commission chairman is very serious about correcting all of these mistakes, but I just wonder if they have enough time and technical expertise to be able to correct these mistakes in time.
Has there been a retrenchment of basic freedoms since the early liberalization?
Well, it was more than a year ago that we began to notice that the government was beginning to crack down on freedom of the media. You must have heard about it, how some journalists were arrested and sentenced to somewhat longish terms in prison. And we felt then that the reform process was not only stalled but perhaps going backwards.
Are reforms still going backward?
I don’t think anything is going to happen ahead of the elections, apart from the constitutional issue, and in my opinion the government is totally opposed to constitutional amendment. That’s regression enough, don’t you think?
How does it feel to be turning 70?
Well, I don’t feel very different, but it’s interesting that I’ve made it this far.