Mon 28 Feb 2011
Filed under: Inside Burma
Political leaders much talked about in their own time are, with a few notable exceptions, largely forgotten by history.
Their influence and fame begin to expire as soon as their hold on power does and often their lives never seem to live up to their words.
They frequently become just a name in a book on a library shelf, a paragraph, perhaps, in a student’s history notes or the answer to a tricky question at a pub quiz night.
Aung San Suu Kyi, on the other hand, seems destined to outlive her time.
More than just a spokeswoman for Burma’s struggle for democracy, “The Lady”, as her people affectionately call her, is the embodiment of that struggle itself.
Like a modern Gandhi, she lives those timeless and universal notions which have always appealed to humans – freedom, sacrifice, endurance, peace, courage, forgiveness and most of all, hope, when there is little reason for it.
At 65 years of age, she has spent 15 of the past 21 years under house arrest in Rangoon for speaking out against the country’s repressive ruling regime and yet still remains fearless.
Released from house arrest only two months ago, she is already risking her freedom by speaking publicly about the troubles in Burma.
Although Suu Kyi has been released, more than 2000 political prisoners remain behind bars in Burma.
The daughter of Burma’s famous independence leader General Aung San and a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Suu Kyi became involved in politics in Burma in 1988 and led the National League for Democracy (NLD) to victory in the 1990 elections – a victory that was denied her by the ruling military regime which refused to give up power.
She is a mother of two and recently met her youngest son Kim Aris for the first time in 10 years after he was finally granted a visa to visit her in Burma.
Herald: Looking ahead in 2011, what is your vision for the future of Burma and what kind of a role do see yourself playing in that future?
Suu Kyi: Well, what I see for 2011 is the need to try to make the people understand that we have the capacity to bring about change. What I want most of all is to empower the people and make them understand ‘we are the ones who can bring about change in this country’.
Herald: It seems that the Burmese people have pinned their hopes on you. Do you feel that it is realistic for them to see you as the saviour of Burma?
Suu Kyi: I think they should pin their hopes on themselves. I always tell people, that they can’t hope without endeavour. If they have any hopes, they have got to work towards the realisation of their hopes. I’ll do everything I can to help bring about the realisation of the hopes of our country, but they also have to do their part.
Herald: At the end of 2010 two key events occurred in Burma, the November elections and your own release from house arrest. Do you think these events can be seen as being a sign of positive change?
Suu Kyi: My release from house arrest had to do with the fact that my term of detention was over anyway and they could not legally have kept me under dentition anymore. Of course, if they wanted to they could have done anything at all, but I think that they decided that it was much better to be legalistic. So I don’t think that this was anything out of the ordinary. As for the elections, it was part of the road map that they had written out – that they had blueprinted some years ago. So, I don’t think it was a new development. It was just another step in the road map they had marked out.
Herald: Critics say the November vote was a charade aimed at preserving the current rule in Burma and giving it legitimacy in the eyes of the international community. Do you agree? Can you think of one positive thing that came out of the election?
Suu Kyi: I think it did make some people understand what elections should not be about, or how elections should not be conducted. I think that is positive, if people can start to get an understanding of what should not be done if elections are supposed to be democratic.
Herald: It seems that the ruling generals are in a bind of sorts. Even if they really do decide they want to move the country towards democracy, they will no doubt be fearful that by handing more power to the people they will be putting themselves at risk for retribution, such as being put on trial for crimes against humanity. Is there any way to get out of this bind?
Suu Kyi: I think that we need a new kind of thinking on both sides. The people need to be more confident of their ability to change things, and at the same time, I think those in authority have to learn to think that they should not see the people as the enemy.
Herald: Many people in New Zealand support you and your struggle for democracy in Burma. Do you have anything you would like to say to them? Is it really possible for the average New Zealander to make a difference in Burma?
Suu Kyi: Oh, yes, of course. Anybody who supports our movement gives us some strength, helps us in some way however small it may be. And I’m immensely grateful to the people of New Zealand for the interest they have taken in our movement. After all, New Zealand is far removed from us and it is a completely different sort of society and yet, the fact that they care enough, about the rights of the people in Burma, is a great boost to our morale, it does strengthen us. I have been trying to build up a network for Democracy in Burma and would like to think the people of New Zealand would be a strong and very active part of the movement.
Herald: In January 2010 the Australia and New Zealand Free Trade Area was established. This was a trade agreement between Australia and New Zealand and Asean member countries, including Burma. Do you think countries like New Zealand should sign these kinds of agreements which facilitate economic co-operation and trade with Burma?
Suu Kyi: We would very much like to be certain that whatever business activities [or] economic activities New Zealand undertakes with regard to Burma, [that they] keep in sight very, very clearly the need for certain policies in this country with regards to the rights of workers and with regards to accountability and transparency and other necessary democratic values.
Herald: What is your current advice to New Zealand tourists wanting to visit Burma and why?
Suu Kyi: We are going to work out a policy on tourism as to what kind of tourists and what way we would welcome tourists to come. How they should come and how they should go about the country. What kind of hotels they should use and what kind of facilities they should use and what they should look out for.
Herald: Do you mean doing things in such a way so that money gets directed towards the people rather than the regime?
Suu Kyi: That’s right. In such a way that tourism would benefit the people rather than the powers that be.
Herald: Your youngest son Kim was recently able to come to Burma to visit you for the first time in a decade. What was it like seeing him after all that time?
Suu Kyi: Oh, it was lovely. I think the loveliest thing of all was that we didn’t feel we had been apart for 10 years. It was very nice. We felt very close to each other, as close as we have ever been.
Herald: Was there any one moment or time during your son’s visit that was especially memorable?
Suu Kyi: Just being together, I think, and he cooked breakfast for me one day which was very nice. I didn’t have time to cook for him at all.
Herald: What did he cook?
Suu Kyi: He made me a mushroom omelette. [It was] very tasty. He is a good cook.
Herald: What are your hopes in terms of seeing him again? Do you think he will be able to visit you again?
Suu Kyi: We hope so – both of us hope very much that he will be able to come again soon. But it depends on many, many things, because he has other commitments as well.
Herald: Now that you have been released from house arrest, are you concerned about your own safety and security? Are you fearful your life is at risk or that you may be re-arrested?
Suu Kyi: Actually, I have to admit, I don’t think about it very much. People keep speaking about my security, but I believe it is the duty of the Government to look after the security of all its citizens including myself.