Scott Stearns interviews Aung San Suu Kyi at VOA in Washington D.C.
STEARNS: Thank you for being with us this afternoon. Our time is short, we'll get right to the questions. Political and economic reforms in Burma are clearly not yet complete. What needs to happen next?
ASSK: We need to just go on with the process. We need to find out what we have to do in order to keep the democratization process on track. Economic reforms have to be taken one by one. You see it's not just speed that's important, it's sequencing as well. You've got to get the speed right; you have to get the sequencing right. Save to get the sequencing right. So we have to find out what next should be done. There is so much to be done.
STEARNS: Keeping democratic reforms on track, what you think is the biggest impediment there?
ASSK: I think it's knowing what kind of reforms should come first.
STEARNS: Do support United States lifting trade sanctions against Burma?
ASSK: Yes I do because I think it's time we tried to stand on our own and I've been very grateful to the United States for what they've done to help the forces of democracy. I think sanctions of helped us greatly. There have been many claims that sanctions have hurt Burma economically, but I did not agree with that point of view. If you look at reports by the IMF, for example, they make quite clear that the economic impact on Burma has not been that great. But I think the political impact has been very great and that has helped us in our struggle for democracy.
STEARNS: Do you think that this process is gotten to the point now where the changes are reversible?
ASSK: That I don't think we can say until the Army is totally committed to change because under the present Constitution, the Army can always take over all parts of government if they think this is necessary. so until the Army comes out clearly and consistently in support of the democratic process we cannot say that it’s irreversible. But I don't think we need fear a reversal too much either.
STEARNS: You’ve spoken of the need to change the Constitution to remove the military's guaranteed portion of seats in Parliament. How do you intend to go about that?
ASSK: I've never emphasized the military's guaranteed proportion. That's what others of emphasized. That does not worry me so much as the provision for the commander-in-chief to take over the powers of government when he thinks necessary. And of course there are other parts of the Constitution which do not actually mesh with the working of the genuine democracy. But whatever we do whatever changes we bring about with regard to the Constitution I want to bring these changes about with the cooperation and willing cooperation with of the Army.
STEARNS: Why do you think the Army has engaged in this process of reform now?
ASSK: The process of reform was actually started by the executive and the legislature. It was President Thein Sein who started the reform process. But of course you must remember that democracy is made up not of made up only of the executive, but the legislature and the judiciary. The legislature has also played its part in promoting reform. The military are part of the legislature in that they are 25% of that, but I think they also work closely with the executive. What we are lacking in Burma is an independence effective judiciary, and unless we have all three of these democratic institutions - strong and healthy, we cannot say that our democratic processes (is complete).
STEARNS: Is there something at present that you think made this a ripe time for these changes in Burma? There are other regimes that have entrenched themselves…
ASSK: There were the elections in 2010 when they said they were turning the administration over to civilian government. Actually most of the people in the civilian government recently retired from the previous Army government, but they did have elections and there are many who question the fairness of the elections and even the United Nations has said these elections were flawed, but certainly was no longer officially a military government, it was a civilian government. I think it is a civilian government which is close to the military because many of them are retired members of the military, but I think the desire for reform of President Thein Sein is very genuine. And now that I've been in a couple months in the legislature I can see that both the speakers of the upper and lower house also are very committed to the democratic process.
STEARNS: We've had many questions on our Twitter feed about violence against Muslims and specifically how the treatment of Rohinja reflects some on the tenets of Buddhism. What do you think of that?
ASSK: Communal tensions are very, very difficult to dissipate in a short time and there have been communal tensions in Burma for decades. The latest episodes of violence erupted because of, from my point of view, from a lack of rule of law. It all started with a criminal act, and if action had been taken quickly, if justice had been done and seen to be done, it would not have escalated in the kind of almost full-scale violence that it did. We believe as a National League for democracy that human rights must be protected by the rule of law, and there can never be occasions where human rights can be neglected or ignored or the rule of law set aside.
STEARNS: What about efforts to trying to find a lasting solution to the Karen and Kachin issues as well.
ASSK: Lasting solutions are always difficult to come to. But they will have to persevere. I've been repeating ad nauseam that we in Burma we are weak with regard to the culture of negotiated compromises, that we have to develop the ability to achieve such compromises. If you want to bring an end to long-standing conflict, you have to be prepared to compromise. If either or both sides insist on getting everything that they want – that is to say 100 percent of their demands to be met, then there can never be a settlement. So we have to negotiate the kind of compromise that is acceptable to all the parties concerned.
STEARNS: A question to you from Facebook: What role do you think of the role of the the Burmese artists and authors can play in the social changes that are undergoing?
ASSK: Burmese authors and artists can play the role that artists everywhere play. They help to mold the outlook of a society -- not the whole outlook and they are not the only ones to mold the outlook of society, but they have an important role to play there. And I think if they take up this role seriously and link it to the kind of changes were wish to bring about in our country they could be a tremendous help.
STEARNS: Can you speak to us for a moment about the need to improve primary education in the country as well as a means of preparing this next generation of Burmese?
ASSK: We need to improve education in the country - not only primary education, but secondary and tertiary education. Our education system is very very bad. But, of course, if you look at primary education, we have to think in terms of early childhood development that's going back to before the child is born - making sure the mother is well nourished and the child is properly nurtured. Early childhood development has proved to be very beneficial and very cost-effective in societies where this is been tried. So let’s not confine ourselves to primary education. Let’s think of early childhood development and education as a whole. But at the moment I would like to emphasize the need for vocational training, for non-formal education in our country to help all those young people who have suffered from a bad education. They have to be trained to earn their living. They have to have enough education vocational training to be able to set up respectable lives for themselves.
STEARNS: There are many foreign investors interested in coming to Burma, especially with the lifting of trade sanctions. Do you see a role for the private sector to play in supporting that vocational education?
ASSK: Of course. Already I am going to start a small vocational training program in my Township. We've bought a plot of land and were going to build vocational training center. This I've been able to do from funds contributed by private citizens.
STEARNS: Your country has a long history with China. Do you have any concern that the competition between China and the United States in that region could affect the development of a young emerging economy in Burma?
ASSK: I don't think we should think of it as competition between the United States and China. And if it is competition, I hope there will be healthy competition and not the kind of competition that is adversarial. We don't want this to be adversaries, we want them to be partners in developing that economic stability of the region.
STEARNS: Do you think United States has pressed China enough on its human rights situation?
ASSK: I think you would know that better than I.
STEARNS: One final question. Another question from Facebook - In your years under house arrest, what is it that kept it going? Did you feel that it was just never going to end?
ASSK: No I never felt it was never going to end, and I didn't really feel the need for anything to keep me going. I felt myself to be on the path that I had chosen and I was perfectly prepared to keep to that path.
STEARNS: What would you say to people in other countries who are in similar situations, under house arrest, who look to you for inspiration?
ASSK: First of all I would say don't give up hope. At the same time I would say there is no hope without endeavor. You've got to work, you got to make an effort. It is not enough to sit and hope. You have to work in order to realize your hopes.
Translated Transcript of Aung San Suu Kyi Interview with VOA in Burmese with VOA reporter Kyaw Zan Tha
Kyaw Zan Tha: I am very glad to see you and thank you for being willing to be interviewed. Everyone is interested in the process of the reforms in Burma. Some people have said that the reforms are just empty words. What is your opinion?
ASSK: It is incorrect to say there have been no reforms at all; there have of course been reforms, but we still need to do more for the people. To become a democratic society we have to continually be reforming. So in conclusion, to say there have been no reforms is a one-sided view I cannot accept.
Kyaw Zan Tha: What then needs to be done in order to pass these reforms down to the people?
ASSK: There are a lot of things that need to be done. The first thing is we need to create better lives for the people. Practically speaking from my own experience with my constituency (KAWHME), the most important things at the moment are transportation, creating job opportunities, even clean water is a problem in many places in our country, Health, and Education.
Kyaw Zan Tha: The Legislature has previously been called a “Rubber Stamp” parliament. Is there any possibility of improvement? Recently we have heard that the Legislature has dissolved the constitutional tribunal or court under their (the Legislature's) own authority. Yet many people consider this to be part of a personal rivalry between the President of Burma and the Speaker of the Lower House of the Legislature.
ASSK: I don’t think that is a personal rivalry. It is an issue of jurisdiction according to the constitution. If you listened carefully to the discussion in parliament, you notice that NLD (National League of democrats) MPs also participated in the discussion. The issue is related to the laws (constitution?) enacted by the Parliament. So how could this be a rubber stamp parliament? Also, there are also some MPs that do not act like rubber stamp politicians.
Kyaw Zan Tha: Is the rivalry between the President and the Speaker of the Lower House healthy for the country?
ASSK: It is not good to see the issue as a personal rivalry. As a matter of fact this type of debate and argument between the executive branch and the legislature is part of democracy and is common in most democratic countries. Even in the United States there was the unresolved budget issue between the executive and legislative branches that almost led to government employees not being paid. So it is common everywhere. One exception is that our country is still a fledgling democracy, so people get overly concerned over these types of issues. It may be possible that some people are deliberately attempting to make the issue into a personal rivalry for their own purposes.
Kyaw Zan Tha: Now I would like to ask you about your campaign promises. You said you have three ambitions: amend the constitution, phase out the military from politics, and end the civil war. So how much nearer are you to fulfilling these promises?
ASSK: Frist, let me correct something, the first ambition I said was to establish the rule of law. The second thing was to end the civil war, and only then can the constitution be amended. Our main goal in amending the constitution is not to phase out the military from politics. Our main point is to put the constitution in line with international standards and norms. I have made clear that in so doing we want to cooperate with the military to accomplish this ambition.
Kyaw Zan Tha: And what about those ambitions? How nearer are you to fulfilling those things?
ASSK: Our reason for putting the rule of law first is that there can be no civil peace without the rule of law, not because civil peace is less important. Now, you know that I am the chairman of the parliamentary committee on the rule of law, so that’s a pretty good situation!
Kyaw Zan Tha: Most of the ethnic people and ethnic forces believe that the peace process will be more effective if you personally participate in the discussion. Do you feel you are ready to do so?
ASSK: I would like to do whatever I can, but this is a problem between the Government and the ethnic peoples. I don’t want to try and exploit the situation for political gains. The important thing is our country needs to end the civil war and for this to happen both sides must want to end the war. I would only become involved if both sides asked me to. As for my party’s political gain from such an event, I don’t want it to look as if we are the only ones trying to solve the issue. If there are ongoing attempts to resolve the matter, we do not want to jump in halfway through the process. If we are wanted, for the good of the country, then we are ready to serve.
Kyaw Zan Tha: Government officials, including President Thein Sein have said that the forum for solving the ethnic problems is the Parliament. Ethnic groups on the other hand insist that they want all inclusive tripartite talks. Which do you think is more suitable to solve this problem? Is there any possibility to solve this problem in parliament?
ASSK: There are lots of ethnic MPs in parliament and there have been some discussions in Parliament over the ethnic issues. That shows that the Parliament is handling the ethnic issues in its own way. However, government officials have insisted that the issue only be discussed in Parliament while the ethnic groups have insisted that it only be discussed outside of Parliament. We have to negotiate between these kinds of differences. There has to be some give and take. As I have often said though, Burmese political culture lacks an understanding of negotiated compromise. We have to build up that kind of culture. Both sides must understand that it is impossible for them to get everything that they want. To have compromise you must first have dialog. That is the true path of democracy.
Kyaw Zan Tha: During this trip, what is your main message to the United States people and Government?
ASSK: Our main message is that we are not yet a full-fledged democracy. We have started working on the road to full democracy. We have a lot of things to do in order to build a democratic structure and to be become a full-fledged democracy. In building Democracy we would like the United States to cooperate with us as good friends. Another thing is to say thank you to the people as well as the Government of the United States for supporting us and sustaining us though out our difficult struggle.
Kyaw Zan Tha: The desire of the United States to actively engage with Burma is partly fueled by their own interests. I mean in order to contain China. Do you feel that the United States is over zealous to engage Burma because of that desire? And is this why you regularly remind this country to not be “recklessly optimistic” about Burma?
ASSK: We cannot avoid the geopolitical situation of Burma, but neither can we ignore Burma’s diplomatic traditions. Our country is located between China, India, and South East Asia. So it is quite natural that a country wanting diplomatic relations with our country would pay attention to who our regional neighbors are. It is not at all fair to ask a country to build relations with Burma but not take into account the situation in China. There is no way to think that taking the Chinese situation into consideration shows a disregard for Burma. We also want to have good relations with our neighboring countries. I do believe the United States itself wants to live in harmony with China and India. That’s why we have to lay down political policies that are fair for everyone. I think it is very mean to start taking sides.
Kyaw Zan Tha: Allow me to ask this question. Lastly, some human rights organizations have criticized you for not making a clear denouncement of the communal violence (in Rakhine State)?
ASSK: I don’t know what their accusation is based on. I have met with both Professor Quintana and Mr. Guters (both of UNACR) and the Turkish Foreign Minister and we discussed the events in detail and talked about the importance of human rights. Human rights and rule of law are inseparably connected. In the preamble of the International Human Rights Deceleration it says that human rights must be defended by the rule of law. At the moment the Government is trying to bring peace to the area. We don’t want to negatively affect the activities of the Government. If there is something we can effectively do, we will do it. We will not criticize the Government without being able to do anything ourselves. We also want to avoid making comments that would heighten the hatred between the two sides. If we are blamed for not taking sides, we are ready to bear that blame. When I was in London a Kachin youth criticized me for not condemning the Burmese military for their offensive in Kachin State. I answered “condemnation is not the solution.” We want to build reconciliation, not condemnation. Likewise we will look equally at both sides in terms of human rights and rule of law. We won’t take sides just for our own political benefit. Taking sides cannot bring peace and balance. We do not want to undermine the Government’s attempts to bring peace. What we can do, we are helping the victims as much as we can. As you know, the NLD is not a rich party. If either the Government or any of the other sides needs our help we are willing to give it.