A Conversation with Aung San Suu Kyi

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

In a meeting conducted via video conference, Aung San Suu Kyi discusses recent changes in Myanmar, her decision to rejoin the political system, and Myanmar-U.S. relations.

Aung San Suu Kyi appears via video conference.

PAULA DOBRIANSKY: (Off mic) -- morning -- or should I say good evening? -- to you. Welcome to today's Council on Foreign Relations meeting, which is co-sponsored by the Washington Meetings Program and also by the Global Stake in Human Rights Roundtable Series, which is chaired by Georgetown Professor and CFR adjunct senior fellow Mark Lagon. We thank you very much for today's program.

Mark has been working very extensively to organize this, and I also want to recognize and thank Jared Genser, who is a human rights lawyer at Perseus Strategies, for this opportunity for today's dialogue.

Let me just make a few administrative announcements, if I may, before we get under way. First, I want to remind everyone, please have off your cellphones, BlackBerrys, all sorts of instruments like that, because it will interfere with our connection, and we really don't want that to happen. So please, please just make that -- sure that those are all turned off.

Also, let us ask you -- today's video conference we're very privileged to have, but bear with us if there are any technical difficulties. CFR will be on top of it, but we hope that won't be the case.

And also, our meeting will be on the record today.

Let me begin and first say that it really is a great honor to moderate today's video conference with one of my personal heroes, someone I have long admired and have looked very much forward to meeting, Daw San Aung Suu Kyi.

We are all very familiar with the images of Aung San Suu Kyi, or "the Lady," as she is simply known to the Burmese, standing up to a military junta in a decades-long struggle for democracy.

Years ago, as we know, she traveled to Burma to care for her ill mother. And that trip to her homeland would cause her to spend the next 20-plus years working on behalf of the Burmese people to honor the legacy of her father and also Burma's founding father, Aung San.

Well, when she and a group of Burmese political leaders founded the National League for Democracy in the aftermath of the 1988 student uprising in Burma, they then went on to win the 1990 elections in a massive landslide. The events that then subsequently unfolded seemed very unlikely: the denial of the NLD's election victory, Aung San Suu Kyi's long periods of detention and house arrest, the brutal crackdown on the NLD, and also a series of military governments. Each seemed more brutal than the last.

Well, over the past 20 years, all this and more has happened, but Daw Suu has never wavered in her commitment to democracy and has never ceased in her efforts to bring it about. As a nonviolent pro-democracy activist, she won the Sakharov Peace Prize for Freedom of Thought in 1990, and as we know, also, in 1991, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Today we have an extraordinary opportunity to year from this incredible, courageous leader at a very critical juncture in the country's political life.

The country seems to be embarking on a period of political reform. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has arrived in Burma. Also, there was the announcement that the NDL will run in the upcoming elections, and Daw Suu is also contemplating that as well.

What do these changes mean for Burma? That's what our discussion will be about this morning. Daw Suu, thank you so much for being here today with us. We very much appreciate it.

I'd like to begin with asking you, what is happening on the ground in Burma? What is your assessment of these political reforms? Are they meaningful?

AUNG SAN SUU KYI: We hope that they're meaningful. I personally trust the president, Thein Sein, but I cannot say that everybody in the government feels as he does.

At the moment what we have to do is to find our way ahead as best we can. It requires a bit of risk. I think we have to be prepared to take risks. But nothing is guaranteed. We can't ever expect a hundred percent guarantee in politics, and certainly we can't accept -- expect that now. But we've got to make the best of the opportunities that have arisen over the last few months.

And I'm confident that the majority of the people of Burma want a peaceful, harmonious transition to democracy. And that is what we want. That is what we have been working for for a long time. And since now it seems as though we have the opportunity to achieve our goal, we must do everything we can to go forward with a -- with a certain amount of caution, yes, but also, we have to be prepared to take risks. I've always believed in cautious optimism.

DOBRIANSKY: Right. Let me ask you, what do you see as the impetus for these changes? Was it a result of the kind of steadfast resistance from within? Was it attributable to some international pressure? Was it because also that now Burma will chair the ASEAN meeting in 2014? What do you see as the impetus for these reforms taking place?

SUU KYI: I think all of these, plus the fact that some -- or some people in government now, high -- or who used to be very high officers in the military, also realize the need to change. I think some of them are going to see that Burma couldn't go on in this way. They would have to change. And I do believe that there are people in the military and in the present government who want to do what is best for the people and for the country. I don't think we can say that good will is the prerogative only of those who are fighting for democracy.

DOBRIANSKY: Let me also ask you -- I know that as we watch from where we are the changes on the ground, many have addressed the issue of the political prisoners. Recently the president of Burma had stated that this isn't an issue. Are the issues of political prisoners on the table, the censorship in the media, the concern about ethnic conflict? Where do these issues stand as one moves forward in Burma?

SUU KYI: I'm not sure if you're speaking -- I missed a bit of what you were just saying. At the moment I can't hear anything. But I'll take a risk and answer -- (laughter) -- first of all -- (audio break) -- several -- and -- well, according to the -- (inaudible) -- count, 591 prisoners of conscience in Burma. And the fact that we are not all agreed on how to -- on what terms to use shows how much more we still have to do. It will be part of the process of national reconciliation to learn to agree to disagree on some things and to try to strike a middle way on others.

The issue of political prisoners is of course very important. But I would like to remind everybody that even more important is the issue of rule of law. There are political prisoners in Burma because there's no rule of law. And as long as there is no rule of law, even if all the political prisoners are released tomorrow, they could always go back again into prison. So I would like more emphasis placed on the need for rule of law in this country and for internal peace, for cease-fires, for ethnic harmony. Without that, we cannot progress to a peaceful, democratic society.

DOBRIANSKY: OK. You were released from prison and house arrest last November. Describe for us what your life is like today. How much room do you have to operate? What are things like for you?

SUU KYI: Very busy. Sometimes I think it was more restful when I was under detention. But it's very busy. And certainly the media has more (proof ?) of a new Burma now than they ever had for during the last two decades, even more now today than they had when I was released last year. Within the last year, the number of young had journalists increased tremendously. And that -- (audio break) -- encourages us, because young -- (audio break) -- right to ask questions and to receive answers. And it's this useful element that I found not just in the media world but in the whole political world in Burma today.

DOBRIANSKY: All right. Well, let me also say we understand that you are contemplating a run for parliament. Tell us a little bit about that. Do you already have thoughts about what your own platform would be in this regard?

SUU KYI: Again, I've lost half of what you said because not all your words are coming through. But I'll have to guess at your question, about running for parliament.

DOBRIANSKY: That's it.

SUU KYI: Well, I hope to run for parliament. We are waiting to hear whether our party's application for registration has -- (audio break). And once that's accepted, we can start making plans to contest the by-elections. We're not sure exactly when those are going to take place, but we would like to run for the by-elections. And we'd hope that by having some of us people in parliament, we will be able to do twice the work that we have been doing, because we'll have extra-parliamentary activities as well as -- (audio breaks) -- as well as the activities within parliament. What we hope to achieve is to push for -- (audio break) -- can you actually hear me?

DOBRIANSKY: No, we -- no. I was looking to see if you were still speaking. We missed the last part of what you said about what are your goals for running.

SUU KYI: Well -- (audio break) -- well, the platform on which we will be contesting the elections will be rule of law, internal peace, ethnic harmony and an amendment to the constitution.

DOBRIANSKY: OK. All right, well, thank you.

Let me also ask you to say a bit about U.S.-Burma relations. What role do you think is important for the United States to be playing?

SUU KYI: I've lost you.

DOBRIANSKY: (Laughs.) I -- with Secretary Clinton's visit, in that regard, what role would you like to see her playing at this critical juncture?

SUU KYI: First of all, I think that both countries want to improve relations. And I'm very much in favor of that. I've always been in favor of engagement. I would certainly be very happy to see -- to see the United States engaging more with Burma, that is to say -- (audio break) -- I would be very happy to see the kind of changes that would make it possible for the United States and Burma to engage very closely indeed. I hope that Secretary Clinton's visit will open the way towards a better relationship. I think that she will be able to discuss some of the very important issues with the government and that they will be able to come -- to come to some kind of understanding that will encourage the reforms to go further.

DOBRIANSKY: How do you see her visit as impacting your goals, then?

SUU KYI: Because our goal is also to make sure that reform stays on course and gains momentum, I think her goals are the same. So if we work together, not just Senator -- Secretary Clinton and myself, but also the government of Burma -- that is to say if the government of Burma and the government of the United States and the democratic opposition in Burma all work together to make sure that the reforms stay on course and gain in momentum, then I think we will be able to achieve our goal.

DOBRIANSKY: We understand that when President Obama was in the region that he phoned you. Are you at liberty to share with us what your message was to President Obama?

SUU KYI: Well, I did mention to him that I was very much in favor of engagement and that I would certainly welcome a visit from Secretary Clinton, among other things. And as I think everybody knows by now, I also asked about his dog. (Laughter.)

DOBRIANSKY: Let me also if I -- if I may ask you, thinking about the region and the -- Burma's chairmanship of ASEAN, talk a bit about the role of ASEAN and Burma's relationship to ASEAN. How you do you see that going forward?

SUU KYI: Well, I hope that the chairmanship of ASEAN in 2014 will encourage the Burmese government to carry out the kind of reforms that ASEAN wants them to carry out. I think ASEAN is becoming increasingly more interested in the human rights situation in Burma, which is very encouraging. There was a time when no ASEAN country would talk about democracy and human rights in Burma.

Now more and more ASEAN countries are addressing this issue, and while perhaps they may not be as proactive as we would like them to be, they are certainly much more supportive of the cause of democracy and human rights in Burma than ever before in the past. So I hope that a bit of cooperation between the ASEAN countries will help the situation in Burma. Of course, I must add that not all ASEAN countries (think alike ?). Some are more interested in human rights and democracy than others.

DOBRIANSKY: We're missing the last part of what you said.

SUU KYI: I'm not quite sure which part you missed -- (laughter) -- but what I was saying is that the -- all of the ASEAN nations do not think alike. Some of them are more supportive of the calls for democracy and human rights; others are not so interested at all. But I think that closer relations with ASEAN, especially now in this climate of reform-mindedness, if you like, in Burma, could only help.

DOBRIANSKY: Can your neighbors India and China be doing more at this time -- at this time of reform in Burma?

SUU KYI: Well, we always think that everybody could be doing more.

DOBRIANSKY: (Chuckles.)

SUU KYI: They can never do enough. But I think India, as a democracy -- certainly we would like India to do more to promote democratic values in Burma. With regards to China, I've always emphasized the fact that we have not only been neighbors and will always be neighbors, we have enjoyed quite a good record of friendship, friendly relation to China, and I would like to maintain that. I hope that whatever little snags may have arisen along the road, we will be able to overcome them and be able to maintain our friendly relations with China. And I do not think simply because we believe in different systems of government, we need necessarily be hostile to one another.

DOBRIANSKY: OK. And let me ask you about the role of the United Nations. The United Nations has had a special rapporteur on Burma. And in that regard, what do you see as the most optimal role for the United Nations today in this time of political reform in Burma?

SUU KYI: I have to confess that I think that the United Nations could play a more proactive role in Burma and in many other parts of the world. This is not, of course, entirely the fault of the United -- (audio break) -- Security Council veto alone, which is enough to stop some suggested plan from going forward. So it is very difficult for the United Nations to do everything that they might wish to do, but still, I would very much like the U.N. to be more proactive in situations like Burma.

Now, the special rapporteur for human rights has done a very good job indeed, and I think that one of the things that members of the United Nations could do is to pay great attention to (his reports ?) and to support his suggestions.

DOBRIANSKY: Can you also talk a bit more about the National League for Democracy, and particularly the next generation in Burma? How are you finding you're able to attract in young leaders, the next generation, in a movement for democracy in Burma?

SUU KYI: Well, as I mentioned earlier, one of the things that made me very happy after I was released from house arrest last year was the greater involvement of young people. I think this may have something to do with the communication -- (inaudible). When I was placed under house arrest in -- the last time, in 2003, there was not that much involvement of young people. There were many young people who felt that they did not want to be involved in politics. They thought this was a dangerous game.

But after I was released -- (audio break) -- last year, I found that a lot more young people were prepared to be involved in politics. And of course, a lot of them now are able to use the Internet and to link up with other young people from other parts of the world. They are better informed about what is going on outside Burma and also about what is going on inside Burma. And so I think this is what has helped them to understand that politics is as much their concern as much as the -- it's not -- (audio break).

And I think the climate -- one has to admit that the climate is freer. Certainly the media is freer. It's not totally free, but it's freer than it used to be. Young people are now able to read articles about politics, about the history of the independence movement in Burma, about our political figures now. They were not able to do that just a year ago. And I think this has invigorated them.

DOBRIANSKY: Has also social media had, then, an impact as well in involving the next generation?

SUU KYI: Oh, yes, of course. I mean, a lot of young people in Burma are very interested in Facebook, for example, and Twitter, and all those other things. They keep persuading me either to set up my own Facebook -- (inaudible) -- or Twitter, and tweet away. (Chuckles.)


SUU KYI: But I haven't gotten around to it yet, not because I don't want to, but because I just haven't had the time.

DOBRIANSKY: I also want to ask you -- I know we're gong to go to questions soon from our audience. The audience here is packed. And there are many people who I know will have questions as well for you.

I wanted to ask you one about also the role of women in -- in Burma. Do you see more women also being involved in leadership positions in the National League for Democracy?

SUU KYI: Well, we intend to put more women into leadership positions in the National League for Democracy. In fact, we hope that we'll be able to field many women candidates in the coming -- (inaudible) -- election. We want to -- well, while it isn't necessary, we would like to discriminate positively in favor of women. But actually, I don't think we'll need to do that. I think women are just more capable than men sometimes. (Laughter.)

DOBRIANSKY: (Laughs.) I know there are a number of members of this audience that might certainly agree with that.

Let me also just step back for a minute and just also ask you to maybe describe for us just what you see in the days ahead as your agenda. You said right now is very busy for you, but what are the next priorities for you and for the NLD at this time?

SUU KYI: We have to get the support of the people in walking the path that we have chosen. I know that the majority of the people are very pleased that the NLD has decided to re-register, simply because they feel that now they have a party for whom they can vote. It's as simple as all that. But still, it's very good that they have this -- that there is an eagerness to support us. And so we have to get close to the people again.

Over the last two decades, although we were officially a legal political party, we were never allowed to operate as one. There were so many restrictions on our work and so many of our most active members were in prison that we were not able to do very much. Now that we will be again legal and that we'll have more opportunities to get close to the people, for example, we can now -- once we are registered, we will be able to, one, open offices all over the country and, two, we'll be able to bring out a party paper.

These things will bring us closer to the people, and that's what we have to do first of all. The NLD has been prevented from getting as close to the people as we would wish to over the last 23 years. And now is our opportunity for make up -- to make up for all that lost time.

DOBRIANSKY: Are there kinds of steps or actions that the international community can take to be of assistance in those goals that you just described?

SUU KYI: First of all, I think it would help so much if you were to watch what is happening in Burma, if you were to make it quite clear that you are watching, and that any regression from the path of reform will be met with the right kind of reaction. So if you were to make that clear, it would help a great deal. For example, if there were injustices, if there were restrictions on the movement of the NLD, if there are again arrests of those who are engaging in politics, then I think you would need to speak out loud and clear.

DOBRIANSKY: Ethnic conflict is certainly one of the issues also that is of concern. Can you say some things about how you think the best way forward to address ethnic conflict in Burma?

SUU KYI: There has to be a political settlement, but at the same time, I think there has to be action taken to make the ethnic nationalities understand that their interests are cared for by the government. We need more humanitarian help in the ethnic areas. We would like to see -- we, the National League of -- for Democracy, would like to see if -- (audio break) -- based in the mainly Burmese areas of Burma, much like similar programs and projects in the ethnic areas.

So we have to show, very, very practically, that we want all the ethnic nationalities of Burma to enjoy the same opportunity. And when I say ethnic nationality, I include the Burmese. I think we should never forget that the Burmese are just one of the ethnic nationalities. Of course, we are the majority, the biggest group in Burma; but still, we're just one of many.

DOBRIANSKY: I know that even when you were under house arrest, you had appealed to the international community for, at times, humanitarian assistance in various health-related areas. At this time, what are the primary resource needs in Burma of a humanitarian nature where the international community also can be of assistance?

SUU KYI: Well, I lost the last part of your question, but I think you were speaking about humanitarian aid to the ethnic nationality areas and how the international community could help them. What we would like is a coordinated effort by donor countries to make sure that whatever aid is given to Burma is distributed with the ethnic nationality in mind and that we coordinate so that there is no waste, so that nothing goes to waste. We have need of every single penny that we can get, and we can't afford any of the aid that is given to us to go to waste -- to waste. And we must -- (audio break) -- the culture and the sensitivities of the ethnic nationalities at the same time was we help them with humanitarian and development aid.

DOBRIANSKY: Well, that is certainly an area that we also are, I know, watching closely.

Let me suggest now -- I -- we're going to go to our audience. And I know that there will be many questions that will be asked. I'm going to ask individuals to identify themselves and to speak very clearly.

Why don't -- we'll go right there. Yes, we -- and if you don't mind identifying yourself, and ask your question very clearly and succinctly.

QUESTIONER: Thank you. Elise Labott with CNN. Thank you very much for joining us today. I was wondering about your coordination with the United States on the dialogue to the government. It does seem as if the United States, the Obama administration is really taking their cues in many ways from you --

(Audio break.)

(Off-mic exchange.)

DOBRIANSKY: That's why, as we said, to bear with us.

MS. : (Off mic) -- it should be -- our apologies.

DOBRIANSKY: OK, thank you. Thank you.

(Audio break.)

(Off-mic exchange.)

(Audio break.)

SUU KYI: Well, I'm back.

DOBRIANSKY: Great. (Chuckles.) We're delighted you're back.

All right. Elise Labott of CNN.

QUESTIONER: I was -- I'll just repeat the question. I was wondering about the coordination of the Obama administration with you and your party in engagement with the government. It seems as if the U.S. is really taking its cues from you on the pace and scope of engagement. In fact, the State Department said you suggested some steps it could take.

I'm wondering if you are comfortable -- it seems as if they look at you as a mediator in some ways. Does that help your situation in the country? Does that affect your improving relations with the government? Or do you feel as if the United States, while continuing a dialogue with you -- is it too much of the engagement between -- are you too much of an interlocutor between the U.S. and the government? Thank you.

SUU KYI: No, I don't think so. I think the United States has got it just right, because although, of course, we discuss many things very often, they also engage with other groups in Burma. I'm not the only democratic opposition party member with whom they discuss -- (inaudible) -- the issue of engagement with the government. And I think the government is quite comfortable with -- (inaudible) -- that I have with the United States, because they understand that I did not wish to use our friendly relations with the United States to in any way hurt the situation in Burma.

DOBRIANSKY: OK. We have a question right there and then we'll come up here in front. Please introduce yourself.

QUESTIONER: I'm Kelley Currie from Project 2049 Institute. We met about nine years ago when I was in Burma with the International Republican Institute, and it's really wonderful to see you again.

My question is a follow-up on the assistance issue. I think that countries and donors that want to be responsible and support democracy in Burma are struggling to figure out how to do that. And with -- I'd like to get more from you beyond the issue of coordination about how donors can responsibly engage on the issue of assistance.

SUU KYI: Well, I missed the last part of your question, but I think you were asking how -- (inaudible) -- to go about their work in Burma. I think they've got to keep their eyes very, very -- fixed very, very strongly on what's -- (inaudible). What we're trying to -- (audio break) -- is a democratic society. So whatever aid is given, I think they have to give it in such a way that it empowers civil society, it empowers the people -- (audio break). We do not want to increase the dependency of (our ?) people. We want to make them more independent, independent-minded. And you can't make people independent-minded by just giving them handouts, as it were. So whatever aid, whatever help is given, we would like to give it in such a way that the people feel empowered and integrated and strengthened to carry on the work for themselves.

DOBRIANSKY: OK. Let's go in front here and we'll work our way back.

SUU KYI: Sustainable aid is what we want.

DOBRIANSKY: Thank you.


QUESTIONER: Thank you. My name is Amitav Acharya; I'm professor at American University and chair of the ASEAN Center. My question is, a lot of people know that there are a lot of people in the U.S. Congress who admire you and look to you to basically give the signal about how and to what extent improved relations between the two countries. And this concerns the questions of sanctions, because Congress has to act to make any difference with the sanctions that are in place.

So could you tell us at what point would you signal to the U.S. Congress that it's time to lift sanctions, and in what sequence would you ask them to lift those sanctions so that there will be normal economic relations between U.S. and Burma?

And very quickly, do you support a federal system for Burma? You said that the ethnic minority problem has to be settled politically. But we also need some institutional arrangements. And would you support, like, a Burma as a federation similar to, say, Indonesia or India?

DOBRIANSKY: All right, thank you.

SUU KYI: The United States has made it quite clear what they expect the government of Burma to do if the sanctions are to be lifted. And we certainly support this. We've always said that the best way to get sanctions lifted in Burma is to meet the conditions that were set by the Congress when sanctions were imposed -- for example, the release of political prisoners, negotiation with the -- negotiations with the democratic opposition, humanitarian access to conflict areas and so on. So if these conditions are met, then the time will certainly have come for sanctions to be relaxed, and whether I say it or not, I'm sure Congress will know that the time has come.

Now, with regard to whether or not we believe in a federal system, first of all, let me say that the word "federal" has been misused terribly in Burma. It has become a very controversial word simply because it was not understood properly or perhaps it was understood quite well or too well by some politicians, but they deliberately misused the word to get the kind of political -- to create the kind of political situation they wanted.

There were many -- and I think there were many members of the army as well as some politicians -- who equated federalism with secession. They said that federalism would mean the dissolution of the union. Of course, we know that this is not so, and so we had to try to make the people understand first what federalism means. And if they understand that federalism simply means the division of powers between the central government and the state government -- governments and that this all has to be embodied in the constitution and the right of secession does not follow automatically, that also will or will not be in the constitution, and if they were to understand that, people would be much less afraid of the word "federalism." And then I think the people of Burma can decide what kind of system they want.

DOBRIANSKY: OK. Thank you. We'll take this up front here. I'm going up front still, and then I'm going to work back.

Sorry. The gentleman right in front, and I will get everybody.

QUESTIONER: Yeah, thank you very much. I am Kumar from Amnesty International.

Thank you very much for your presentation. You mentioned about constitutional amendments that you are going to fight for during the elections. Have you discussed those amendments already with the president and is he agreeable to those changes? Thank you.

SUU KYI: No, I have not yet discussed those amendments with the president, but I think if you've been following what has been going on in the National Assembly in Burma, there are already moves to make amendments to the constitution because some parts of it seem to be unworkable. So I think that the question of amendments to the constitution will not come as a surprise to anybody in the government.

DOBRIANSKY: All right, let's get -- we have the question right there.

Yes -- and if we could get a mic to her.

QUESTIONER: Thank you. Good morning. I'm Anita McBride, and I'm with the George W. Bush Institute, and I was formerly the chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush, and I bring warm regards to you from her.

My question has to do with educational exchanges. I chair the Fulbright Scholarship Board, which has produced many leaders around the world. Our numbers with Burma are very small, understandably. And what role could you play or do you envision playing encouraging the government to open up more educational exchange opportunities for young people in Burma? Thank you.

SUU KYI: First of all, can I -- can I also send my very, very warm -- warmest regards to Laura Bush? I've -- we all appreciate what she did to help our cause for many, many years, and I hope that the time will not be too far off when she'll be able to come to Burma too.

Now, with regard to education, we certainly think that education is of the greatest importance in Burma. The government must spend more on education first, before they ask for help from other countries. I feel that if the government is serious about improving our educational system, they've got to take the first steps. And then it will, of course, be time for the international community to rally around and help in whatever way they can. I certainly look forward to a time when there can be many more exchanges between Burma and the United States than there are now.

A number of our young people have already gone to study in the United States, but we'd (love ?) -- like to see more of that, and we'd also like to see more young Americans in Burma, and I hope the time will come when this will be possible.

DOBRIANSKY: OK, thank you.

Yes. The gentleman right there, and then we'll make our way back up -- (inaudible).

QUESTIONER: Thank you very much. Christopher Wall from the Pillsbury law firm. Thank you very much for speaking with us today. My question relates to sanctions, returning to that topic. The question before related to the lifting of sanctions by Congress which, as you characterized, is essentially an all-or-nothing proposition, meeting certain conditions in order to lift all of the sanctions.

Now, the sanctions also have an element that have been imposed by the administration as well as, of course, by the European Union. Do you believe that certain levels of economic -- increased economic engagement between the United States and the European Union would further encourage the pace of political change in Burma, short of a lifting of all of the sanctions? And if so, what would those loosening of sanctions to encourage economic engagement be and on what time frame do you think they should be taken in order to current -- to continue the pace of political change within Burma?

SUU KYI: I'm sorry. I don't -- didn't quite get your question. Were you saying that will closer relations between the U.S. and the EU make any difference to the sanctions situation in Burma?

QUESTIONER: No, the question relates to what particular sanctions, short of lifting all of them, could be loosened in order to encourage economic engagement that would in turn encourage further political change?

SUU KYI: I do not think that we can say that, if you lift certain -- (inaudible) -- sanctions, this will be bring about economic change unless we're talking about lifting sanctions.

First of all, we've got to get to the point where sanctions can be lifted, and then I think we'll have to get -- set our priorities, which sanctions to lift first in order to encourage the right kind of changes.

I'm not quite sure whether this is the question because I didn't get all of your questions. So I hope that this is what you were asking.

DOBRIANSKY: I -- he is nodding yes -- (chuckles) -- yes.

Q: Yes, that's (wonderful ?).

DOBRIANSKY: Yes, thank you.

Let's go right up here. You have a question?

SUU KYI: (Inaudible.)

DOBRIANSKY: (Chuckles.)

QUESTIONER: My name is Amochu Zuki (ph); I'm working with the Japanese -- a newspaper called Asahi Shimbun. Thank you for doing this today.

And first, my question is about clarification. Have you yourself decided to run for the election next year? And if so, are you prepared to announce that? And Japan has had strong economic ties with Burma, and what kind of role do you expect Japan to play in this time of reform? Thank you.

DOBRIANSKY: Thank you.

MR.: What kind of role do you expect Japan to play in education?

SUU KYI: Well --

DOBRIANSKY: He -- he asked -- he --

SUU KYI: -- I hope I heard your question correctly. I will certainly run for the elections -- I -- when they take place, and we don't quite know when these by-elections are going to take place.

And you were talking about Japan. I thought you were talking about the economic role that Japan might play, but somebody in the room here tells me that you were actually asking about the educational role or the role of Japan with regard to education in Burma. And in any case, I'll answer both.

With regard to -- (chuckles) -- economic involvement, I would very much hope that would-be Japanese investors will study the situation carefully and think of investment in terms of benefits for the people of Burma as well as for themselves. That is to say that we would like them to think of fair and ethical investments.

Now, if it's a question of education, if that was what you were asking, of course, as I said earlier, we would certainly like to engage more with the international community in promoting education for our young people.

DOBRIANSKY: He wanted to know your view on Japan at -- in its entirety. So thank you for both answers.

Let's go to the gentleman right there.

QUESTIONER: Michael Allen with the National Endowment for Democracy. You said at the outset of your comments that not everybody in the government supports the reform process. What is your assessments of the balance of forces, so to speak, within the military in terms of those who support or oppose the reform process? In other words, how robust or fragile is their endorsement of the process?

SUU KYI: When I said that not everybody in the government supports the reform process, I think I should also say, to be (fair ?), that not everybody on the side of the democracy movement is in favor of cooperation with the government at this juncture. So this kind of disagreement is bound to happen at all times. This is politics.

But I am not unduly worried by these differences of opinion. In fact, I think in some ways they're healthy because it keeps us on our toes. It makes us understand that we have to work (much harder ?) to make the reform process succeed.

DOBRIANSKY: OK. Let's get the question here, and then we're going to come in front over here. The gentleman right in front here. He's in the second row. Thank you.

Q: I'm Alex Feldman. I'm president of the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council. And it's good to see you.

I have a question following up on your answer on Japan, but what a role do you see for the international business community in playing to help create the environment that attracts investment and business to Burma when sanctions are repealed? And how can we as the American business community help with especially the rule-of-law issue that you raised earlier?

SUU KYI: Well, I think you need to make it quite clear what you expect, what kind of business environment you want. You were talking about the rule of law just now. I have been told by many businessmen that they would not think of investing in Burma, even after sanctions have been removed, as long as they have no guarantee that their interests will be protected by law.

So these are the kind of things that I think you must make very clear to the government of Burma: what you expect, what you consider a healthy economic climate, what kind of economic environment would induce you to invest in Burma. If you were to make these things clear, it would help the process greatly. You could say very clearly: without rule of law you cannot expect us to come and invest quickly and eagerly, because we can never be sure that our investments will be protected.

DOBRIANSKY: OK. Let's come to the front row. And we'll go -- we'll make our way back.

QUESTIONER: Thank you. I'm Fred Hiatt from the Washington Post editorial page. I hope you know you have a standing invitation to write for our page. (Laughter.)

I'd like to ask, if the momentum of reform is maintained, what are the specific benchmarks you would expect to see met over the next six to 12 months?

SUU KYI: First of all, of course, I would like to see -- (audio break) -- by this country, and serious talks with the ethnic nationalities. And then there must be rule of law. There must be steps taken to ensure that the judiciary is clean and independent. That's crucial.

And then, of course, there is the release of more political prisoners. I did not put political prisoners first simply because without the rule of law, as I mentioned earlier, political prisoners could be released one day and put back again the other, on another day.

So what we want is serious reforms with regard to the judiciary. We want a free press and we want the release of political prisoners, and the right of political parties to operate freely and independently. Of course, not all these would come at the same time, but there has to be enough progress in those directions, the directions for us to be sure that reform will keep on going forwards rather than regressing.

DOBRIANSKY: OK. Yes, please.

QUESTIONER: Hi. I'm Christina Fink, and I'm teaching at George Washington University and the Elliott School of International Affairs. I met you in 1995 and 1996 when I worked for the Open Society Institute.

And I'd like to ask you about poverty alleviation in rural areas in Burma. What concrete steps would you like to see the government of Burma take to address poverty in rural areas?

SUU KYI: I've been talking about poverty alleviation in rural areas with potential donor countries, including the United States. I think this is something we have to do as soon as possible, because one of the ways in which we can help to push along the reform process is to make people understand that it will benefit them in very practical ways. And if the donor countries were to join together with the Burmese government to promote poverty alleviation, it would be a very good thing.

I think along the way, as to other countries' help with programs of aid towards poverty alleviation they -- (audio break) -- transparency and accountability on the side of the government department with whom they have to work together. And that will help us in two ways: It will help to alleviate poverty; it will also help to make sure that governance in general is more transparent and accountable in this country.

DOBRIANSKY: OK. We have a question. We'll go there, and then we're going to come up here. The gentleman who's in the front row, right there. OK.

QUESTIONER: Good evening. My name's Tom Wang, with the American Association for the Advancement of Science. A couple of years ago, we initiated a U.S. science diplomacy mission to Burma, and we hope to go back early next year.

My question related to that is with respect to the development of civil society groups, how civil society is being organized in Burma to help, as you said, to support political reform and governance in Burma at this time. Thank you.

SUU KYI: Did you say that you're from the science society?


SUU KYI: Well, I -- ah, well, I was just a little surprised, because you said you were from the science society, then started asking about civil society. (Laughter.)

Anyway, what we are doing about civil society in Burma is trying to build it up for ourselves. There has been a great interest in civil society organizations in recent years, particularly since the -- (inaudible) -- when people suddenly learned that we have to look after ourselves. And as the National League for Democracy, we have been trying to promote civil society in every way possible. For example, we have set up a network for democracy. Now, this network has worked well -- has worked better in some areas than in others; for example, in the area of education, and also in the area of humanitarian help in times of crisis.

So we are beginning to build up civil society for ourselves. We have had to learn a lot from what is going on in the rest of the world, and this again is thanks to the communications revolution. We know now much better what other people are doing in other parts of the world, and so we learn from them. And also, we learned from our own problems. We have learned that we just have to learn to cope with our own problems ourselves.

DOBRIANSKY: Thank you.

Let's go right here.

QUESTIONER: I'm Mark Lagon, a Georgetown University professor, and with the Council on Foreign Relations. And thank you very much for agreeing to this dialogue after our correspondence.

I have a question about accountability of another kind. Some horrendous crimes have been committed by the military leadership and those forces that have come under their command. Imagine a world in which there is a new government in Burma. What do you feel about the accountability -- the prosecution of those who were responsible for crimes? Some of us here in the human rights community have been, for instance, terribly troubled by --

SUU KYI: I think --

QUESTIONER: Some of us have been troubled by sexual violence that has been directed at certain ethnic groups, really with the agreement of the military and the government. What should their -- the prosecution be, if there is a new government, if that's not too premature a question? Thank you.

SUU KYI: Well, I think responsibility is -- I'm sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt you; I just thought that you had -- your question had come to an end, because you kept getting cut off -- (audio break) -- anyway, with -- about accountability, I think accountability is extremely important (of course ?). But of course, accountability is not the same as a tribunal. I think we've got to remember that because, with regard to the commission of inquiry that Professor Quintana has been requesting, that people think that this is tantamount to a tribunal before which they -- those in the previous military regime would be dragged to pay for their sins and so on; but Professor Quintana has made this quite clear that a commission of inquiry would be primarily a fact-finding inquiry with accountability, rather than retribution, in mind. Now, accountability, that then -- (audio break) -- must be.

With regard to justice -- (audio break) -- of a restorative kind and accountability, but there must be -- but of a healing -- (audio break) --

DOBRIANSKY: I think it -- it's -- I wasn't sure if you stopped -- (chuckles) -- at this -- OK, it seems -- I think -- could you -- could you just repeat the last part? It seems it was cut off.

SUU KYI: Well, I don't know when I was cut off, but I think I'll start with Desmond Tutu again because he's always worth quoting again and again. He said that there were two kinds of justice, retributive justice and restorative justice, and that he believed in the latter kind. And so do I -- and so restorative justice and the kind of accountability that will help to heal the wounds of our society rather than to open them up further.

DOBRIANSKY: Thank you for repeating that.

Let's go way to the back. She has her hand -- way back there, and then we'll come up front to you. Yeah.

QUESTIONER: I'm Sally Quinn from the Washington Post, editor-in-chief of "On Faith." And like Fred Hiatt, my colleague, I wish you would write for us. (Laughter.) This is more of a personal question. I don't know what I expected to see from you today, maybe somebody looking very tired and worn and maybe a little embittered. And yet I see an incredibly cheerful and optimistic person before me. And given what you have been through in the last 15 or 20 years, which none of us can really imagine, what has gotten you through all of this? You have talked about how we mustn't -- we want restorative, not punitive. And you've said, let's forget the past. Is it your faith that's gotten you through this and brought you to the point where now you can be as optimistic and as cheerful and as forward-looking as you are?

SUU KYI: Well, let me answer you bit by bit. So -- (audio break) -- and secondly, I am tired -- in fact, rather sleepy as well. But I'm glad it doesn't show. (Laughter.)

And thirdly -- well, I'm not embittered. But I have to say that I'm not saying forget the past. We must face the past. We can't forget it. But we don't need to remember it with bitterness. We don't need to remember it with anger. We need the past in order to -- we need to remember the past in order to avoid the kind of mistakes we've made then in the future. So we need the past in order to help us live the future better -- the present and the future better.

And you asked if it was anything to do with my faith. I suppose you mean with my religion. I suppose partly it must have something to do with that because, well, I am a believing Buddhist, so I am sure the teachings of Buddhism do affect the way I think.

But more than that, I would state that when I started out in politics, in this movement for democracy, I always started out with the idea that this should be a process that would bring greater happiness, greater harmony and greater peace to our nation. And this cannot be done if you are going to be bound by anger and by desire for revenge. So I've never thought that the way to go forward was through anger and bitterness, but through understanding, trying to understand the other side, and through the ability to negotiate with people who think quite differently from you and to agree to disagree if necessary -- if necessary and to somehow bring harmony out of different ways of thinking.

DOBRIANSKY: That has truly made you the remarkable leader that you are.

Let me go to the gentleman right here.

QUESTIONER: Hi, my name is Win Min, a researcher from Vahu Development Institute and also a journalist at VOA, Voice of America. Thank you so much for contributing our answer-and-question session for VOA every week. Our audience increased significantly after your program. (Laughter.) And I met you at the hospital in 1988, Jaika (ph) Hospital, 23 years ago when your mom was receiving her treatment.


QUESTIONER: Yes, yeah. So my question is, what do you -- what role do you expect to play after running in elections, whether in the government or in the parliament?

My second question is: Then, what is your priority, yeah, to, you know, improve things? And what do you think will be the challenges? Thank you.

SUU KYI: (Inaudible.)

QUESTIONER: Sorry. What is the -- what role do you expect to play after the election, either in the government or the parliament? What are your priorities and challenges that you will expect -- (inaudible) -- after you are elected? You are very likely to be elected? Do you get it?

(Off mic conversation.)

SUU KYI: Well, when you say what role do I expect to play in parliament, I suppose I expect to play the role of a member of parliament. (Laughter.) (Audio break) -- those parts of the constitution which (we ?) think are not beneficial to our nation.

DOBRIANSKY: We didn't hear fully what your priorities would be and what challenges you will face.

SUU KYI: On priorities, I already outlined this. (Audio break) -- we would try to achieve rule of law, ethnic harmony and amendments to the constitution. And of course, the challenges will be to carry out these programs successfully.


Are there other questions? Yes, we have right over there, the back.

QUESTIONER: Hello, I'm Delphi Nalgon (ph), D.C. director of Reporters Without Borders. And I would like you to -- ask just could you describe more precisely the press freedom improvement you noticed this last year?

DOBRIANSKY: She asked about the press freedom, if you could say more about press freedom today.

SUU KYI: (Audio break) -- let me talk about my personal experiences. A few months ago, there was a movement (on the part ?) of one of the journalists to publish the letters from Burma that I write for the -- (inaudible) -- in Burmese. And we immediately ran into trouble, because in the first article they were trying to publish, I had mentioned the executive committee of the National League for Democracy, and in fact, they didn't want this mentioned. So I said, all right, then I won't publish it. And then at another time they didn't -- they objected to another bit about prisoners -- (audio break) -- prisoners.

But these have been -- these have been resolved. They do not seem now to mind the National League for Democracy, the executive committee being mentioned. And we compromised on political prisoners. At first they said, could I just say prisoners. I said: No, I can't -- (inaudible) -- prisoners, because I'm not talking about the release of prisoners; I'm talking about the release of political prisoners. But then they said -- (inaudible) -- how about prisoners of conscience? And I said, yes, that I would -- (inaudible) -- because they were -- (inaudible) -- prisoners of conscience. So you see, there have been gradual improvements in the situation.

DOBRIANSKY: And about the issue of press freedom, in that sense?

SUU KYI: Well, they have been talking about press freedom, (because ?) -- (chuckles) --


SUU KYI: -- I don't know whether you were -- you caught what I was saying earlier, but just a few months ago there was a lot -- there were a lot more -- there were more restrictions. They objected to this word or that expression. But now they are beginning to loosen up (some ?) and they are much more liberal with regard to political terms, political statements. I'm talking about my very own experiences, but I thought it would interest you to know what exactly has been happening. And I think this -- the relaxed -- (relaxation ?) applies -- implies (sic) to everybody in (general ?).

DOBRIANSKY: Your personal example was of great interest to us.

Are there other questions? Let's go to the way back. The gentleman -- it's way, way back -- (chuckles) --

QUESTIONER: Yes. Hi. Richard Finney with Radio Free Asia. There appear to be restrictions still in place on foreign journalists getting into Burma. Do you anticipate that those will be relaxed any time soon?

SUU KYI: Do you say you are with RFA?





SUU KYI: Could I just say that there -- that I greatly enjoyed your programs when I was under house arrest. I still listen to them now -- (laughter) -- but only once a day instead of twice a day --

QUESTIONER: Great. Thank you!

SUU KYI: -- because in the evenings I'm otherwise engaged, such as now. I'm talking to you instead of listening to the RFA.

DOBRIANSKY: (Chuckles.)

SUU KYI: But I'm sorry that your journalists, your correspondents were not allowed into Burma, and I have hope that things will improve. But certainly they're allowing in the BBC correspondents. At one time, you see, the BBC was at the top of the undesirable list. So I'm sure things will change.

DOBRIANSKY: OK. And the -- right back there, too, and we'll make our way up for these three. Yes.

QUESTIONER: Thank you, Daw Suu. I'm Rosalind Jordan (sp) with Al-Jazeera English Television. You said a few moments ago that you felt that there was some sort of split in the current government, that there are those who support reforms and there are some who don't want reforms. Do you have any sense of how those who would prefer to keep things the way they were during the worst years of junta, whether they have the power to try to, in essence, retrench and to essentially shut closed the window which the world is now getting to see inside Burma? Thank you.

SUU KYI: I didn't say there was a split in the government. I just said that there would -- that there is probably disagreement as to how desirable reforms were, just as there is disagreement on the side of -- on the side of the democracy movement with regard to whether or not we should look on the reforms positively.

With regard to what they may (have ?) been able to do -- I think that is (was your ?) question -- I think you were asking whether those who do not desire reform could -- reforms could put a stop to the process -- what we have to do is to make sure that nobody will be able to put a stop to the reform process. We all have to cooperate to make sure that it goes forward.

DOBRIANSKY: OK. Let's take these two questions. I believe you had one or -- well, all right -- three. We'll take these three, and then we must close. The gentlemen and the two in front. Please.

QUESTIONER: Hello, Aung (D ?). This is Aung Din (sp) from the U.S. -- (inaudible) -- of Burma. I was the vice chairman of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions during the 1980 uprising. And I worked together with Miko Ni Koko Gi (sp) and all.

So my question to you is, I saw the list of 21 persons who included in the party registration. So are these new leaders of the party? And are you going to reform the party from -- with young (blocs ?)? I just want to ask that question.

Thank you very much.

SUU KYI: I know part of your question, but I think you were asking whether the 21 who applied for party registration were new leaders of the party, and no, they are not. These are just 21 members -- (inaudible) -- (the NLD ?) to be re-registered. And in fact one of them is not in -- not (previously ?) -- he has not been a member of the NLD. He is a member of our -- (audio break) -- are not the new leaders. They are just -- they just represent different parts of NLD, some from the various divisions and states. And we've tried to include as many women as possible, just to show that NLD would like to promote greater participation of women in policy.

DOBRIANSKY: (Fine ?). We're going to have to take this last question from you.

QUESTIONER: Daw Suu, thank you. You -- I'm sure you are tired, but it certainly does not show.

DOBRIANSKY: Would you introduce yourself?

QUESTIONER: I'm Marvin Ott, Woodrow Wilson International Center and Johns Hopkins University. Just one last question: The government's decision to suspend or cancel the dam project, the major dam on the upper Irrawaddy, has caused a great deal of comment. Can you describe your thoughts as to the significance of that decision and any further thoughts you have on relations between Burma and China? Thank you.

SUU KYI: I think the most significant thing about the decision of the president to suspend the dam project is that he listened to the voice of the people, and that is a (good ?) thing. He listened to public opinion and decided to do what is in harmony with public opinion.

With relation -- with regard to our relationship with China, we hope to keep it (friendly ?) -- (audio break) -- I hope that it will always be a friendly one and that the Chinese government will understand the concerns of our people. After all, if we are -- (audio break) -- are to maintain friendly relations, we've got to understand one another. We can't just look at things from our point of view.

We certainly do understand that the Chinese companies who had signed contracts to build the dam would be -- would be (worried ?), to put it mildly, about this suspension. But at the same time, I think the Chinese government should understand how concerned the people of Burma are about this project. So we've got to learn to understand one another. We've got to learn to talk to one another.

This is what politics is about for us. It's learning to talk to each other, even if we do not think -- (audio break) -- (inaudible) --

DOBRIANSKY: Does -- oh --

SUU KYI: -- the same way -- (audio break) -- (discussion ?) and to negotiation.

DOBRIANSKY: My closing question to you is, will democracy come to Burma?

SUU KYI: Yes, of course. Did you ever -- (laughter) -- doubt it? (Laughter.)

DOBRIANSKY: All right, well, thank you so much for being here with us today. We very much appreciate it. (Applause.)

SUU KYI: Thank you very much. And the next time I think we will make (it ?) in the middle of the night for you and in the middle of the day for me. (Laughter.)

DOBRIANSKY: Thank you.

SUU KYI: Thank you and good night. (Applause.)






Top Stories on CFR

United Kingdom

The United Kingdom and European Union are engaged in another bout of Brexit brinkmanship, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson pushing a bill that would undo their previous agreement. Here’s what to know.


The United States and its partners in the Americas have made little progress on ending the dire political and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. Only with the cooperation of crucial partners in the European Union can the U.S. government hope to reach a resolution in the stricken South American nation.

NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization)

The U.S. military is considering some major shifts to its posture in Europe, including a large withdrawal from bases in Germany, that are raising security concerns on the continent.