India and the rest of the world need to understand that Myanmar is just at the beginning of the road to democracy, and that its present Constitution does not make the road smooth, says Aung San Suu Kyi
In an interview to Nirupama Subramanian, Myanmar’s icon of democracy says that she looks forward to rebuilding democratic ties between the two countries. She arrives in India today on her first visit after almost five decades to the country where she spent her formative years. The interview took place in Myanmar's capital Nay Pyi Taw on October 31.
In a few days time, you will be going to India, where you grew up, went to school, college. It’s going to be 50 years since you were last there. What are your expectations from this visit, at a personal level, and for Myanmar?
On a personal level, I’d like to see my old friends again, and, just to talk with them, just to be with them. And I’d like to see the old places, the places where I spent time as a teenager; Lady Shri Ram College, see how it’s doing — that’s on a personal level. On a political level, I would like to establish closer relations between the peoples of our countries. I feel that perhaps in recent years we’ve grown apart as peoples, because India took a road which is different from ours, or rather we changed route. At one time both of us were dedicated democracies and we were close together, on the ideological front as well as in other ways. I’d like to see a closer relationship between our two peoples, because I’ve always felt we had a special relationship — India and Burma — because of our colonial history, and because of the fact that the leaders of our independence movement were so close to one another.
Did it surprise you that India took a different path?
Well, I have to tell you that nothing surprises me anymore; I’ve come across so many twists and turns of fate. I don’t think anything will surprise me anymore. Pleased, displeased, happy, unhappy maybe. But surprise, no.
You’ve often said Gandhi and Nehru are your greatest inspirations after your father. In your own political battle of the last two decades, were you disappointed that the land of Gandhi and Nehru moved away from you?
Disappointed? I’m trying to work out whether I’m still capable of disappointment. Yes, to a certain degree, I was disappointed. But on the other hand, the fact that one’s not surprised means that one’s disappointment was mitigated. In a sense what it means [is] that you had worked out in your calculations that this was a possibility. Of course, one would rather that it had not been like that. One works out what the possibilities are and of course one would prefer that possibility which is most after one’s heart, but that doesn’t always happen. And I think, sometimes I think rather than disappointment, sad is the word I would use because I have a personal attachment to India through my friends as well as because of the friendship that existed between my father and Jawaharlal Nehru, because of the closeness that existed between the countries. So rather than disappointed, I was sad that it had to be like that.
How do you expect the political relationship between yourself and India to be now?
I think this depends a lot on how far we can go towards democracy because as we progress towards democracy, I think it would be easier for official relations between the two countries to be more clear-cut. I can understand that India had some problems choosing between the opposition and the government that was in power and that happens very often in international relations. But if Burma is established as a democracy as I wish it to be, that would mitigate problems of — not inconsistency — deciding between the two sides.
In what specific ways can India help Myanmar at this stage of its political transition?
It’s to be able to take a good hard look at what is really happening. Not to be over-optimistic, at the same time to be encouraging of what needs to be encouraged; because I think too much optimism doesn’t help because then you ignore what is going wrong, and if you ignore what is not right, then from not right it becomes wrong. And from wrong, it gets worse. So I think good friends sometimes have to be tough. And say this is not on.
Can you be a little more specific?
For example, at the moment of course everybody is mainly interested in Burma because of its investment policies. I think we have to face this fairly and squarely. But investment has to be done in the right way. And also we have to keep in mind that we are just at the beginning of the road to democracy, and as I keep saying, it’s a road we have to build for ourselves. It’s not there ready and waiting. The Constitution that was adopted in 2008 was not in any way a smooth road to democracy. And we have to do all that building ourselves, and I think this needs to be recognised by India and by the rest of the world — that we are not on the smooth road to democracy. We still have to be given the chance to build the road to democracy.
So if there is one message that you would want to give to Indian investors, what would you tell them?
I would like to say, of course we are interested in basics such as job creation, on the job training. But I would like India to focus attention on strengthening local government. We are a union made up of many ethnic nationalities, and I would like would-be investors to focus on how to bring us closer together as a union. But at the same time, to be fully aware of the fact that development is no substitute for democracy. And that the aspirations of our ethnic nationalities go beyond mere development.
There is a tendency to project India and China as competing for influence in Burma? How do you view this triangle?
It’s natural that people should see it that way. There’s some truth to it. After all, these are the two giants and both happen to be our very close neighbours. But if you look back, we can take heart from the fact that Burma always retained good relations with both countries after independence, even when China was rigidly Communist and India a working democracy. And we ourselves were a democracy. And in spite of that we managed to maintain good relations with both countries. And this is something that we will always have to try to do. I always say that you can’t move away from your neighbours. You may divorce a spouse, but you can’t move away from your neighbouring country. So it’s very important that you maintain good relations. And again, I think, it’s people to people relationships which are most important. It’s not government to government. Governments come and governments go. But the peoples of the countries, they remain. And if we manage to establish genuine friendship between our peoples, then the future will be good for us. That’s not impossible.
You spoke about not being overly optimistic, and how the 2008 Constitution was not a smooth road to democracy? What remains to be done in that respect, what milestones would you like to see covered, and in what time frame?
Well, there are so many things to it, but roughly speaking the 2008 Constitution gives too much power to the military. The military may take over the powers of government if they think it’s necessary; and of course, 25 per cent of all the assemblies, both at the national and regional level, are made up of military nominees, unelected. It doesn’t worry me unduly, because it gives us an opportunity to engage with members of the military; but of course, it is hardly what you would call a democratic way of going about it. And then, the regional governments do not actually have real power. It’s still a very centralised system and such a centralised system is not going to promote democratic values, but more important than that, it’s not going to promote ethnic harmony.
Would you like to see all this change before the 2015 election, is that a time frame that you are looking at?
I think some of the most important sections will have to be amended before 2015, if 2015 is going to establish us firmly on the road to democracy.
Would you also aim to change the provision in the Constitution that bars you from running for President?
Yes, not because it bars me from running for the office of President, but [because] I think it’s not right that any Constitution should have been framed with one person in mind.
Do you want to be President of Myanmar?
I would like my party to win because it has the people behind it, and in that respect, I’d be prepared to take over the position of President. Not so much because I want to be President of a country but because I want the President of the country to be elected through the will of the people.
You are saying you don’t want power for power’s sake…
Oh we need power for the sake of making change. Let us not be pusillanimous about it. If we want to bring about the kind of changes we want, we need power, not power for the sake of power, but power for the opportunity of bringing about the changes we would like to bring about.
In the last few days, there’s been concern internationally and in Myanmar that the incidents in the Rakhine region between the Buddhists and the Rohingyas may cause a setback to the process of reforms, and also there’s the other fear that it could snowball into a security threat for the entire region if it leads to the radicalisation of the people there. Do you share these worries? Are you concerned? You haven’t said much about it…
Of course we are concerned. I think in many ways the situation has been mishandled. For years I have been insisting, and the National League for Democracy also, that we have to do something about the porous border with Bangladesh because it is going to lead some day or the other to grave problems. But nobody, of course, paid attention because the problems were not there yet. Also we have emphasised the need for law and order, the rule of law. And again, the perception was these were communal problems.
I emphasise rule of law, one has to emphasise rule of law because communal differences are not settled overnight. In fact, they often take years to sort out. In the meantime, if they had concentrated on rule of law, they could have prevented violence and human rights violations breaking out, and that would at least have kept tensions under control. And until tensions are under control, how can we try to bring about communal harmony? You can’t. When people are committing arson, rape and murder, you can hardly ask them to sit together and talk, sort out their differences. It’s not practical. So we have to make sure these kind of troubles should not erupt in the first place, which is why I emphasise the rule of law.
There were those who were not pleased, because they wanted me to condemn one community or the other. Both communities have suffered human rights violations, and have also violated human rights. And human rights have been grossly mishandled in the Rakhine by the government for many decades.
What do you see as the long-term solution to the problem?
First I think we will have to put law and order in place. I hate to use the expression ‘law and order’ because when the military took over in 1988, they called themselves the State Law and Order Restoration Council; so law and order is an expression we approach with great caution. We would rather say rule of law, rule of justice — that we’ll have to establish peace and security.
How difficult has it been for you to make the transition from being a worldwide hero and icon of democracy and freedom to a politician who has to make compromises?
I’m glad you asked this question. I find it surprising because I’ve always been a politician. People talk as though I were sort of an icon or on a pedestal, but they seem to forget that throughout, my party and I have been criticised — of course, reviled by the military government — but criticised even by other organisations, by some countries, because we were, they said, not prepared to compromise. We were always prepared to compromise, and we’ve always offered to compromise all along the line. And I’m surprised when people say to me that now I’ve got to be a politician. I want to ask them what do you think I’ve been all these years.
You’ve always talked about being true to principles, does it bother you that in the everyday practice of politics you may have to forsake principles for compromise?
We’ve never had to forsake principles. There’s no need to forsake principles for compromise, especially in my case because our principles are not rigid. Our principles are very basic principles of, if you like, human and political decency. We’ve always been prepared to compromise. We’ve never stood on our pride, as it were, or on our vanity. Of course, I’ve always said negotiations mean give and take. Give and take means you give sometimes, and they give sometimes. And there are times when you have to give, times when you take. You can’t insist on being the taker all the time. And we’ve always said this. Actually, the truth is that the world has woken up to our cause only very recently, in general. They’ve been aware of what we were doing, but not really alert to what we were doing, or what our principles were, or what our stand was. Very, very few people know, the times we’ve tried to compromise with the military regime, or if they know about it, they’ve forgotten about it.
Do you think the military is completely on board this process? When you say don’t be overly optimistic, do you fear that it hangs by the reform-mindedness of one individual, President Thein Sein?
In fact, the President is quite apart from the military. The military is the military, and the executive is the executive. This is what I mean by saying that the Constitution is hardly democratic. So until we know the military is solidly behind the reform process, because the President certainly does not represent the military, then we can’t say this is irreversible.
What is the test of that, for you to believe that it is irreversible?
I think the test would be their preparedness to consider changing the sections in the Constitution that are not democratic.
How much credit would you give to President Thein Sein for his role in this whole process?
I think he needs to be given credit, but I do not think he’s the only one who brought it about.
Is it Burma or Myanmar?
Well, I think it’s up to you. I’ll explain why I use Burma. Burma was known as Burma since independence. Suddenly, after the military regime took over in 1988, one day, just like that, out of the blue, without so much as a by your leave from the people, they announced that Burma was going to be known as Myanmar in English from now on officially, and it would be Myanmar at the U.N. and so on. And the reason they gave is this, that Myanmar referred to all the peoples of this country whereas Burma, first of all, is a colonial name; and secondly, it had only to do with the ethnic Burmese.
To begin with, I object to a country’s name being changed without reference to the will of the people, without so much as the courtesy to ask the people what they might think of it. That of course is the sort of the thing only dictatorships do. So I object it to it on those grounds. And then secondly, it’s not true that Myanmar means all the ethnic peoples of Burma. I think it’s just the literary name for Burma, which is the ethnic Burmese [usage]. And thirdly, this business of colonial name, that it is a name imposed by the colonial power, I think that is the kind of reason which is based on xenophobia rooted in lack of self-confidence. Look at India, look at China, look at Japan. The biggest most powerful nations in Asia: none of the names are native to them. And look at Indonesia, look at the Philippines. So I think this is petty and narrow-minded. And some say it was because of astrological calculations, and that of course puts my back up entirely.
Keywords: Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar politics, Burma, Myanmar opposition leader, Thein Sein, Myanmar’s icon of democracy, political transition, astrological calculations, constitutional democracy, Nay Pyi Taw