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source: The New Internationalist (June 1996)


by John Pilger

The theme of this special issue is `Burma - a Cry for Freedom'.

AUNG SAN SUU KYI - Burma's elected leader - was born in 1945, the daughter of Burma's national hero Aung San. She was two years old when he was assassinated, just before Burma gained the independence to which he had dedicated his life. After her education in Rangoon, Delhi and Oxford, she worked for the United Nations in New York and Bhutan. She married an Englishman and spent several years raising a family in England. Then in 1988 she returned to Burma to care for her dying mother. Her return coincided with the outbreak of a spontaneous revolt against 26 years of political repression and economic decline. Suu Kyi quickly emerged as the most effective and articulate leader of the movement and the party she founded, the National League for Democracy, went on to win a
colossal electoral victory in 1990. But the military junta refused to transfer power as it had promised and until last year kept her under house-arrest in Rangoon. From her home she now organizes weekly political meetings - but she is as much at risk as any other citizen in SLORC's Burma and the regime still finds ways of restricting her movement and her contacts with the outside world. John Pilger recently interviewed her in her Rangoon home.

JP: Three years ago an official of the regime said: 'You can forget about Suu Kyi. She's finished.' Here you are, hardly finished. How do you explain that? SK: I think it's because democracy is not finished in Burma. Until we finish this course for democracy, none of us who are involved in it will be finished.

JP: Do you think the regime is as confident now as it was?

SK It's difficult to judge. The authoritarian regime always takes the attitude that 'we are totally in control and anybody who is in opposition to us has no place in the country and they are finished'. But what really impresses me is the courage of the people who have already been in prison and who continue to work for democracy. They know what it is like to be in a Burmese prison and they know that they are liable to be put back there any day. And yet they do not give up. That's very inspiring. I always feel that even if only five such people remain we will get democracy - and there are certainly many more than five!

JP: What is the democracy that you and your people want?

SK: Well, it's a very simple kind of democracy. We want a system that will guarantee our rights so that we can live in security; so that we do not have to wonder from day to day what will happen to us if we do something that will annoy those in power. If you asked an ordinary Burmese why they want democracy the answer will probably be: 'I want to have the basic right to try to make a decent living for myself without being frightened all the time '

JP: How can you reclaim the democracy that you won at the ballot box from the uncompromising and brutal power that confronts you?

SK: We are not the first people to have had to face an uncompromising, brutal power in the quest for freedom and basic human rights. I think we have to depend chiefly on the will of our own people for democracy. In Buddhism we are taught the four basic ingredients for success: first you must have the will to want it; then you must have the right kind of attitude; then you must have perseverance; and then you must have wisdom. So we hope to combine these four. The will of the people for democracy is there and many of us have the right kind of spirit or attitude. A number of our people have shown tremendous perseverance; and I hope we'll acquire wisdom as we go along the way... But it still comes down to the fact that on one side there is a power that has all the guns... I think it is getting more
difficult in this world to resolve things through military means. The fact that the authorities are so keen on attacking us in their newspapers indicates that they themselves are not depending on guns alone...

JP: Well, they are clearly frightened of you...

SK: (Laughs) I think the age has passed when the gun can solve problems and even the military authorities know that. Why are they using the pen if they think the gun can solve all problems?

JP: Burma - with 40 per cent of its population consisting of ethnic minorities - seems like an Asian Yugoslavia. How will the country be united in the democracy that you plan?

SK: We have been disunited in Burma' because there's a tremendous lack of trust between the, Burmans and the other ethnic groups and among the ethnic groups themselves. In order, to build up trust there has to be openness and that is why democracy is necessary. Yugoslavia is a very good example of a country where there was not sufficient openness to resolve the problems between the Serbs and the Croats. They were not provided with a framework within which they could discuss their differences and so they ended up shooting each other. In Burma we badly need the kind of framework that will; allow us to 'talk about' our grievances with out killing each other. l do not think there will ever be true unity, without democracy - as Yugoslavia has proved. For more than 40 years nobody knew what was going on there: under the surface. Because there was a strong government keeping everyone in order we thought there was unity. But unity comes from within, and unless we create a framework for all of us to talk very openly - and to generate trust we'll never get unity. It's not a question of 'how will democracy ever, achieve unity?', but 'how will we ever achieve unity without democracy?'

JP: Is it not fair to describe your release from house arrest as an entirely cynical decision by the regime to give itself a human face in order to encourage foreign investment?

SK: I think perhaps they also miscalculated the situation. They may have calculated that the National League for Democracy, was a spent force and that releasing me was not going to make any difference.

JP: Should foreign investors come?

SK: I do not think they should come yet - and I am speaking for them as well as for the people of Burma. From the point of view of the people of Burma, there is hardly any investment coming in now that will provide employment and better standards of living for those who really need help. From the point of view of the investors, the basic structures necessary for sustained economic growth do not yet exist in Burma. Investing now may go against economic growth because it may make the authorities think that the half-measures they have taken are sufficient... but they are not and this will lead to social and economic problems which will work against the interests of the investors themselves.

JP: What do you say to foreign politicians who say that Burma is heading towards democracy and therefore investment is justifiable?

SK: Investment is not justifiable now. But I am convinced that Burma is heading towards democracy because it's what the people want - and inspite of investment not because of it.

JP: A lot of Western politicians say that through commercial contacts with democratic nations the Burmese people will gain experience of democratic principles.

SK: Not in the least. The so-called 'open-market economy' is only open to some. Commercial contacts are certainly not going to help Burmese people get democratic ideas. New investments help a small elite get richer. I would have thought that this would work against the very idea of democracy because the gap between rich and poor is growing all the time.

JP: Should tourists stay away?

SK: Burma will always be here and when it is democratic it will be a place that I think tourists will enjoy visiting. They will [then] need have no qualms or guilt feelings.

JP: You've become quite an extraordinary icon of hope. Is that a burden?

SK: Yes and no. Yes, because if people base their hopes on you, then of course it's a responsibility. No, because I've always said that I can't do it alone and neither can the National League for Democracy. We need the help of the people and we need the rest of the world. I have always said I would do my best. I have never promised that will get the people democracy.

JP: No, but It's what people expect of you. The people I've spoken to clearly regard you as something of a saint - almost a miracle worker.

SK: I am not a saint and I think you'd better tell the world... I would not like to be thought of as a saint...

JP: What are your sinful qualities then?

SK: I've got a short temper. I'd rather sit down and read than really be engaged in public meetings and things like that...

JP: Your husband Michael Aris has written movingly of his early commitment to you. Could you tell me something about that?

SK: It's not all that complicated. I just said, 'I am Burmese and there may come a time when I have to go back to Burma and when that time comes I would expect you to be understanding and sympathetic', and he said, 'yes'. It was very simple - not a big negotiation process at all...

JP: But you couldn't - either of you - have foreseen the events that were coming to you, or could you?

SK: No. But I always had every intention of coming back to do what I could for Burma because that's where my roots are. When I got the phone call about my mother's illness it was a matter of coming home and making all the practical arrangements necessary I had no time to think of it as a 'day of reckoning'. I knew my mother's life was probably coming to a close, but I did not know how long I would be in Burma...

JP: Could you tell me about the first day you were placed under house-arrest?

SK: There were a lot of people here. We were all in good humour... There wasn't a scurry to burn incriminating material because we didn't have any incriminating material. My two sons were here and I remember them playing Monopoly with some of the students. The older people sat around and talked and while the phone was still usable made calls to their families... It was not unexpected and we just thought, 'well, yes, this is it...' I thought I would be taken to NC [the maximum security prison] and was rather disappointed when I was left here and the others were taken away...

JP: During all those years when you were under house-arrest did you ever waver in your resolve not to accept exile?

SK: No, of course I didn't. I had promised the people I would do everything I could do to get democracy... So there was no question of going into exile...

JP: What was the most difficult time for you personally during your house arrest?

SK: There isn't any particular time that stands out... I was worried for my colleagues, about our people out there when there was a lot of repression ... And of course, I missed my family and I worried about my sons very much... My youngest was only 12 and had to be put in boarding school. But I would remind myself that the families of my colleagues were much worse off, some were in prison, whereas I knew my family was safe...

JP: Were you able to keep in touch with Michael during that time?

SK:There were times when we were out of touch. The longest period was two years and four or five months.

JP: No letters or anything during that time?

SK: No

JP: No letters from the children?

SK: No

JP: Were you concerned about the impact this would have on your two boys?

SK: Yes, of course. It's very difficult for children to cope with a situation like that. My youngest son is a very home-loving child. He's not the sort who enjoys boarding-school life at all, but these things had to be done...

JP: There were times when you did not have enough to eat. Is that correct?

SK: Yes, but I don't think of that as tremendous suffering. I generally don't eat much anyway. One does get weak and it's inconvenient. I did worry about my heart because I had difficulty breathing. I couldn't lie flat because I found it difficult to breathe after I became very weak. But I think that's quite normal.

JP: Well, it's normal if you're not eating... You were cut off from family, friends and colleagues; surrounded by a hostile force. Weren't there times when you were actually terrified?

SK: No, I didn't feel hostile towards the guards or soldiers surrounding me and I think fear comes from hostility. So I felt quite relaxed...

JP: You hadn't been able to speak to your husband or sons for two whole years. That must have produced an aloneness that in itself is frightening, surely?

SK: Yes, well I didn't feel really alone because I had the radio, you know. I listened to the radio five or six hours a day and that kept me in touch with the rest of the world and of course I had my books. And I think loneliness comes from inside. People who are free and live in big cities often suffer from terrible loneliness...

JP: You've written about fear and fearlessness. Was there a point during your house-arrest when you actually had to conquer fear?

SK: No, not during my house-arrest, but when I was small. It was in this house that I con-quered my fear of the dark.

JP: How did you conquer your fear of the dark?

SK: By wandering about in the dark, at night, for about two weeks running. In the end I got a bit bored with the whole idea.

JP: During those days of house arrest what were the ordinary pleasures you looked forward to?

SK: I had a busy timetable, although this might seem strange. From 4.30 am when I got up to meditate right through until I went to bed at 9 pm. There was always something to do with every hour. I liked listening to music on the radio. I would look forward to continuing with the books I was reading and, of course, meditation was very calming and strengthening. I have never been a very athletic type and so I didn't enjoy doing my exercises so much. But I did them regularly after meditating.

JP: Burmese society is very male-dominated. How would you change it if you were leading a democratic government here?

SK: People keep asking me about women's rights and I always find it a little difficult to answer because the men in Burma have no rights either. I feel that first of all we have to get basic rights for everybody and then we have to attack this area. Women are particularly discriminated against. It is clear that women do not get what they deserve. There are very few women in the Civil Service, for example. You see very few women in high positions. And yet if you look at medical school, where the brightest students go, about 50 to 60 per cent of students are girls. So girls are not lacking in ability or education, but they don't get as far as they ought to. Obviously these areas will have to be studied

JP: Is Burma going to be free in your lifetime?

SK: I can't tell what my lifetime is going to be so I can't answer that question.

JP: All right, then. Will Burma be free within the foreseeable future, let's say within the next ten years?

SK: I think so, yes.

JP: What can people around the world do to help?

SK: First, think about the situation in Burma. Then I would ask them to study the UN General Assembly Resolution on Burma and to help implement it. It's a good resolution: it calls for the early and full restoration of democracy, for the acknowledgement of the will of the people in the 1990 elections and for the full participation of the people in the political life of Burma. And, of course, it calls for the release of political prisoners and observation of basic human rights.