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Asiaweek- We Have Compromised 1
Asiaweek June 11, 1999.
'WE HAVE COMPROMISED'
Suu Kyi says negotiations can start without her
(The full transcript--only at Asiaweek online)
PEOPLE HAVE BEEN WAITING years for Myanmar's junta to open substantive
negotiations with the opposition National League for Democracy. The generals
promised they would talk with anybody in the NLD, except the party's leader,
Aung San Suu Kyi. The party insisted on her presence. Negotiations never
began. Now, though, for the first time Suu Kyi seems willing to let other
NLD officials start a dialogue with the generals. She recently discussed her
future, and that of her party, with Asiaweek Senior Correspondent Roger
Mitton in Yangon.
Yesterday was the 9th anniversay of the 1990 elections which your party won
handsomely. What is state of your party today compared to back then?
"Well, I wasn't around when the elections took place because I was under
house arrest. So I can't really compare the party today to what it was in
1990. But I can compare it to what it was like before I was placed under
house arrest, that is 1989. Compared to 1989, the party is subjected to a
lot more restrictions. There have been a lot of arrests of party members in
the meantime, and some of our best people are still in prison. Some have
started coming out - not because of an amnesty or anything like that, but
because they've served their term and are having to juggle their way back
into the free, or as free as it is in Burma, free society. And the party, I
think, is tougher. It's much more, it's smaller because obviously a lot of
our members have been forced to resign. Or they have been put into prison.
But I think there's a tougher feel to it, it's more tight knit. It has to
You said in your human rights message in April this year that you have faced
more hardship over the past year than over the preceding 7 or 8 yrs.
"Oh, yes. Because the authorities, over the last year, really started
getting serious about trying to annhilate the party. Because this has been
their slogan for I think about two or three years now. Annhilation."
Annhiliation? This is the term they use?
"Yes, that is the term they actually use. They use this word annhilate. And
I think then they changed it to crush perhaps because there was a little bit
of criticism on the part of the international community."
You said the regime's activities against you are tantamount to criminal
"They are criminal activities. Because what they are doing is against the
law. According to the terms of the law, some of the things they have done
are crimes. So they are criminal activities."
But there is nothing much you can do about it even so?
"Oh, there is no rule of law in this country. So the fact that they act in
these criminal ways, it does not make any difference to them. It makes a lot
of difference to the people, of course."
On May 27 last year your party held a Congress and announced its intention
to convene a parliament. That was a fairly dramatic action.
"No, it wasn't like that. We did not announce our intention to convene
parliament last year. It was not like that. But one of the decisions taken
at the Congress was that we should ask the authorities to convene parliament
by a certain date."
And subsequently you placed a deadline of August 21 by which time parliament
must be convened by the regime.
"That was the decision of the Congress that we should inform the authorities
that parliament should be convened by a certain date."
And if they did not convene parliament by that date?
"Well, we discussed this matter. Party representatives who came to the
Congress wanted to know whether we had an alternative plan. And we said we
didn't at the moment because the decision had just been made that we should
inform the authorities of our decision to ask parliament to be convened. But
then we decided that we would have to make an alternative plan because if
they didn't meet the deadline then we must take another action."
That's when you decided you would name your own committee that would
represent parliament in the absence of the regime convening it?
"The committee representing parliament, yes. But we went step by step. They
didn't convene parliament by the 21st of August, so our party announced that
we would then convene parliament on our own and then the regime started
arresting our MPs. So then we decided that we would form the committee
So it was a fairly dramatic summer last year.
"But step by step. I think if you put all these things together then it
makes it into a great big drama. But that is not how it actually was. It was
one thing at a time."
It certainly captured the attention of the international media, especially
when you add on your own attempts to drive out of town.
"Yes, but again that was at a different time. It was all spread out from May
until September last year. May, June, July, August, September. It was spread
out over five months. If you put together what happened over the five months
then it seems very dramatic, but if you take it one thing at a time, then
you can see that we went quite slowly."
Yesterday, the one-year anniversary of your congress when you took the first
of those steps and asked the regime to convene parliament, you held another
party meeting but you did not make any comparable move or first step of any
"Well, there's no need for a first step any more, we've already taken the
first and second steps - the second step was to form the committee
representing parliament. Now the next stage is to take forward the
activities of the committee. That is the logical next step. You can't keep
taking first steps all the time. That wouldn't make sense, would it."
But many people felt you would make another dramatic move on May 27 this
year in order to boost your party's profile.
"People always want drama, I think especially journalists. They want
something dramatic all the time to write about. Which is why I disagree with
your view of our having done something terribly dramatic last May. It wasn't
like that at all. You're putting together five months events into one day,
and then of course, that makes it seem very dramatic."
So there will be no comparable actions over this summer, even if spread out?
"I don't know what you mean by comparable actions. Because what we did last
summer was to go forward step by step, and we will keep on going forward
step by step."
Well, comparable actions like driving out of the city?
"Driving out of the city was not part of the call for convening parliament.
It was connected to that because they started arresting our MPs."
That action of driving out of the city put you and your party into the
headlines of the world's media.
"Although it may surprise people, we don't do things in order to attract
attention. We do what we think would help us in our political aims, that's
So things like driving out of the city, which might precipitate a rather
strong reaction from the regime, you are not at the moment planning any of
those types of actions this year?
"Last year, if you think back, the first two times we did that, driving out,
it was resolved very quietly. And we were not doing it in order to
precipitate a strong reaction either. Because the authorities decided to
play it in a civilized way and there was a civilized solution. It was only
the third time, when it was decided that they wanted to go in for drama. So
it was not we who went in for drama. We, as I said earlier, don't do things
in order to attract attention or to create drama. We do what we think would
be politically beneficial for our party and its supporters."
I repeat that people were expecting you and your party have to do something
dramatic like last year.
"We never say what we are going to do in advance. So it's no use in trying
to find out."
But there has been a sense of disappointment or a deflation among people
that nothing happened yesterday on the May 27 anniversary.
"It depends on how political they are. If they study the announcements of
the committee representing parliament, they would know that we have taken
actually a much bigger step than we have done since last September. Because
we are starting to make plans for preparing a Constitution, and for getting
closer to the nationalities. But people are not interested in the real
politics of it, they just want dramatic events."
Do you believe that the people are still behind you?
"Oh, yes, much more now than ever. Because I think we have much more support
now than we had say three years ago, when there were those who thought that
perhaps the government's economic policies were getting them somewhere and
that the country might be improving economically. But last year - well, in
1997, that was really the crunch year for the economy - it became obvious
towards the end of 1997 that things were not going well. And last year it
became even more evident. And because of that, we have more support now than
we had, say, three years ago. I think the best years for the regime were
between 1993 and 1996 from the point of view of the economy. Because at that
time, people really believed that there was going to be a big boom."
You extrapolate dissatisfaction with the economy into support for you?
"No, I don't think so. I think people support us because they are discontent
with the present regime. That's normal in any circumstances. You know,
people support the opposition because they don't like the incumbent. So
whether it's for economic reasons, political reasons or social reasons, it's
not always the same. But I would say that primarily in Burma at the moment
it's for economic as well as political reasons. But I think that it's the
economic reasons which have swung so much support in our favor over the last
couple of years."
How can we gauge your support from the people, aside from getting feedback
from your members?
"You can also look at how cooperative the general public is with the
authorities. I think then you will have some idea of how much they like or
dislike this regime. I mean you can grade the degree of support or lack of
support for the regime that way. And anybody who has studied the situation
here would find that the general public are not really cooperative with the
regime at all. They are reluctantly dragging their feet, going along with
what they are made to do. But you don't find any enthusiasm for the policies
of this regime."
Former ASEAN secretary-general Ajit Singh, when he was sitting with the
regime's Gen. David Abel last night, asked me why Asiaweek did not write
more about you and your party losing support.
"Why is he saying that? Because he obviously wants you to write about it. In
fact, Asiaweek and other Asian magazines have put forward this point of
view. So I suppose they want to emphasize this point of view, which is not
really surprising coming from an ASEAN country."
If an election were held again tomorrow, would you win in comparable style
as in 1990?
"Oh, absolutely. Perhaps even better."
There are those who say that was then and this is now.
"Well, I'll say one thing, it's only if elections are free and fair. I doubt
that if there were an election tomorrow, it would be free and fair because I
think the regime has learned a very hard lesson from the previous elections.
And I think if they were to hold elections tomorrow, they would make sure
that the elections were rigged so that whoever they want to win will win. I
don't think they would allow it to be free and fair elections. Because they
miscalculated very badly in 1990."
There are those who say that the election would not be won by the NLD, it
would be won by you. And it would be won by you because of your name - the
name of your father, Aung San, who is a hero to the people.
"They said this about the last elections too. A lot of people say the last
elections were won because of me rather than because of the NLD. But that's
a matter of opinion."
They say the party is nothing without you.
"I don't think that is true. I would be nothing without the party. After
all, I can't work without a party. And obviously it helps the party to have
me because my father's name still means a lot in Burma."
The rather scabrous cartoons that appear every day in the New Light of
Myanmar do not bother you?
"No, we've got so used to that. That's been going on for a year or two now.
Certainly a long time. We've got quite used to that. We'd be quite surprised
if they didn't come out. In fact, they are one of our biggest assets, as it
were. Because the nasty cartoons have turned a lot of people against this
regime. We get feedback from ordinary Burmese people, from a lot of Burmese
business people who are not particularly political and who I don't think
were really hardline supporters of the democracy movement or anything like
that. They are people who really had not that much against the military
regime either as long as they could make the economy work it was all right.
But when these cartoons and very very vicious articles started coming out in
the government media, the feedback we got was that some of these people just
felt embarrassed. And they began to think that it showed up exactly how the
regime has no standards at all. The nastiness of the cartoons reflects the
nastiness of the regime - and also their low intellectual approach if you
At the ASEAN conference being held here yesterday and today, Gen. Khin Nyunt
gave the keynote speech. He said: "Myanmar is on the right political track
that will guarantee the peace, stability and prosperity of the nation." Is
the country on the right track to prosperity?
"Well, it's certainly not prospering. I don't agree with that statement at
all. Let's put it like that."
You have said in the past that things are worse now than they were under the
Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP) - the regime led by Gen. Ne Win from
1962 to 1988?
"Yes, I think a lot of people would agree with that. It's much better now
for a few people. The economic opportunities that have come into the hands
of a few people have made them very very wealthy; but in general I think
Burma is much worse off. Take the lack of electricity. It was not this bad
under the BSPP. Now there is a very very bad shortage of electricity. I
think in some cases a shortage of water as well. Because in many places even
in the middle of the city, people depend on electicity to crank up water
from the ground floor to the upper floors. So no electricity means no water.
And if the electricity only comes on at 12 o'clock at night they have to get
up at 12 o'clock in order to get water in while they can."
"And look at the state of the schools and hospitals. They are much worse now
than they were under the BSPP. Because under the BSPP, I don't think that
there were complaints that there were no medicines in the hospitals. Or no
equipment. There was a certain lack of sophisticated equipment and perhaps
they did not have all the medicines necessary. But the situation was much
better. But now they have nothing in the hospitals."
"And the same thing for the schools. The schools under the BSPP were not all
that hot, but now they don't have basic things like textbooks. Although in
some schools they have built up these fancy computer showrooms with
computers which are kept under lock and key, except for demonstration
"So I think one can say that we are much worse off. And of course, if you
look at the statistics collected by an agency like UNICEF, which is nothing
to do with either the democracy side or the military regime, you would find
that the percentage of people who don't go to school at all is rising. And
the percentage of elementary school dropouts is also rising."
Yet people who came here during the 1980s say that the roads then were all
potholled, that there was only one decent hotel in Yangon where you got a
candle when you checked in and so on; whereas now the roads are okay, there
are lots of cars and the place is full of hotels.
"As I said, for some people it has got better. I said for the privileged
people it has got better. But how many Burmese people use these hotels
anyway? How many Burmese people are going to fly in after a holiday abroad?
So for those who can do it, yes, it's better."
Someone mentioned to me that, of course, even the military men suffer from
power outtages and other hardships from the economic situation, so it's not
as if they are benefitting from this.
"It depends on where you are. You can be a quite low-ranking officer, but if
you happen to be in the right place i.e. a place where you can make a lot of
money, where people like to bribe you, or where you are in a position to
dictate how people live, then you can get very very wealthy. But a higher
ranking officer who is in a position where there are no bribes coming in,
then he will not be well off. And of course the rank and file are not well
They may not be well off, but everyone seems to agree that there are no
signs of unrest by younger officers, no signs of dissatisfaction.
"Well, there are always rumors about dissatisfaction because the soldiers
are poor. The rank and file are poor. They don't get enough to eat. And I
think you will find that a number of families of soldiers are putting up
little stalls, little snackbars, in the areas where they have barracks
because the husbands are not earning enough. That you can see everywhere all
over the place."
Businessmen tell me that the kyat economy is doing quite well, growing by 3%
to 4% annually; that it is only the dollar economy that is doing badly.
"What do they mean by the kyat economy doing well?"
Using kyat for purchases, trade and whatever, it's only things that you need
to import, or the national projects where foreign currency is used and where
there's a lack of foreign exchange, that are really hurting.
"Yes, but what do they mean by the economy doing well? Of course, we buy
things with the kyat, if that's what you mean. That we go on doing. But with
the rate of inflation, business has dampened down. Ordinary foodstalls or
restaurants, eating places, where you pay in kyats, I think there are fewer
customers there too."
Even in rural areas?
"Even in the rural areas people are having to tighten their belts. But in
the rural areas, of course, there are not that many economic enterprises
growing as there are in the urban areas. In the rural areas there are mainly
farmers and the agricultural economy is not doing all that well. For
example, recently because the rain started so early this year, in April, I
was told that the peanut crop has been really bad. So that's going too
affect peanut farmers hard. And that also means that the price of peanut oil
is going to go up."
Yet few seem to think that the weak economy will lead to political change.
They think the people will just struggle on as they have done for the past
forty years or so.
"It always surprises me when people make remarks like that. Considering the
fact that in 1988 what happened happened really because of the economy."
Well, it was the demonetarization of some of the kyat notes that really
caused that to happen, wasn't it?
"Yes, but that hurt them economically. The fact that some of the kyat notes
were demonetized didn't really bring about a revolution at all. It was
nearly a year before the 1988 demonstrations broke out, but in the meantime
of course the people had been getting poorer and poorer. And the economic
hardships were getting worse and worse. And so it was a culmination of many
economic hardships. I think economic reasons have always played a fairly big
part in political revolution."
Is that what you are seeking: a political revolution?
"We are seeking a political revolution simply through political means. By
doing politics which is what we are doing, and which is what the government
is trying to prevent us from doing. So if a revolution breaks out, it will
not be of our doing. It will be because the government has more or less
blocked all other paths to political change."
Would you support the people if unrest like that breaks out?
"If you mean that would I support violence, no I would not support violence.
Because I don't think that violence really does anybody any good. But if you
mean that would we support a spontaneous demonstration by the people for
better conditions, certainly we would. Why shouldn't we?
We know that there is a need for better conditions."
If an NLD government came in, would it broadly follow a market economy?
"Yes, we have actually brought out a couple of papers of our economic
policy, but people never read them. Then they ask what is our economic
policy. They say: don't you have an economic program? When in fact we have
brought out a number of papers on this and most foreign correspondents don't
read them. And then they ask us what our economic program is."
You continue to believe that economic sanctions against your country are a
"I think sanctions are effective. The government says two things. Sometimes
they say that sanctions have no effect whatsoever so they don't care about
them - in which case, why are they making a fuss. And then sometimes they
say that sanctions are hurting the ordinary people in Burma. But when they
say that the sanctions are hurting the ordinary people of Burma, then that
does not sound good either because that's tantamount to saying that they are
different from the ordinary people and that their life is quite different.
So either way you look at it, the regime's approach toward sanctions is
inconsistent and not very uplifting. But we think that sanctions have been
effective, because as the United States is such a strong economic power,
then when sanctions came in, potential investors started looking into the
situation very carefully. And then they found that there were many things
that they didn't like about the business practices and the invesment laws of
Burma. And that is why they backed off. Not simply because the U.S. brought
There are those who say that sanctions are a bankrupt policy, that they've
never really worked and that all they are doing is bringing hardship to the
people of your country?
"Well, they are not causing hardship to the people of the country. That we
can say. So to people like that, I would just say that: prove it, prove that
sanctions are hurting the people of the country. And they can't really prove
it. The US sanctions are not such that they in any way effect the Burmese
economy as it is to a great extent. The ones who are hurt are the ones who
are right at the top, who were thinking of having dealings with American
firms. Because the sanctions didn't get rid of all investments; it was just
that no new investments could come in. So, whom does that hurt? Only those
who were planning to work with American companies. And how would that help
the ordinary people? I just don't know how they argue that it hurts the
But they might argue that if there were no sanctions then there might be
investment in infrastructure projects that might alleviate the power
shortage and other things that make life so difficult for ordinary people.
"But what is the proof that any American firm was thinking of doing that
kind of infrastructure work anyway? There is no proof of any kind. There
were some individuals who had plans to go into business with American firms,
but not on things like that. It was for their own personal profit. And I
suppose sanctions have hurt people like that. But not the ordinary people of
You disagree with those in ASEAN who continue to invest in your country?
"I think a lot of people are losing. A lot of the ASEAN investments here are
not doing well at all. If you look at the hotels you would get a good idea
of how badly they are. How big a percentage of their rooms are full?"
I think you said once that the ASEAN economic crisis was helping your cause,
is that a correct interpretation?
"I don't know whether I said it was helping us as such, but I think I may
have said the ASEAN economic crisis made the problems of Burma much more
evident to others. Because they were not able to help Burma, they were so
busy with their own problems. And then the economic incompetence of this
regime became more obvious, with nobody to bale them out."
In that earlier statement of Khin Nyunt's at the ASEAN meeting here, he also
spoke of the government bringing peace and stability. People say that a
major achievement of the regime has been to settle the ethnic insurgencies.
Do you agree?
"They have had the ceasefire agreements, but they are still ceasefire
agreements. They don't seem to have come to any longterm political solution.
Because the ceasefire groups are still holding onto their arms. And that in
itself creates an element of instability, because members of the ceasefire
groups can just go into the big cities of Burma with revolvers at their
hips. And it is illegal for ordinary Burmese citizens to go around with a
lethal weapon. But members of the ceasefire groups, I suppose the officials,
can be seen around with their guns."
So would you say that the regime has achieved a halfway step in bringing
stability and curbing the ethnic fighting?
"They've got the halfway step, yes. But I don't know about stability. If
they are so confident of the stability of this country, why haven't they
reopened the universities?"
They may regard that as a different issue from dealing with the border
"Well, it's all to do with stability, isn't it. You can't say it's a
There are worries, especially in the regime, but also outside, that if you
come to power the country will be plunged into a Yugoslavia or Indonesia
type situation, with ethnic fighting flaring up all over the place.
"I don't buy that at all. It's such a silly idea that I don't really even
think it's worth discussing in great detail. But if you must go into the
Yugoslavia problem, the animosities, the hostilities, between the various
racial groups in Yugoslavia go back to the 12th century."