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Asiaweek- We Have Compromise 2
"We Have Compromise 2"
Do they not go back just as far here between the different ethnic groups? -
the Shan, Wa, Mon, Arakans and so on?
"Not quite in the same way. The Wa is a new element. We've had wars between
the Mons and the Burmese, and between the Arakanese and the Burmese. Not so
much with the Shans, although there have been squirmishes with individual
Shan chieftans, Shan rulers. But the kind of problems that existed in
Yugoslavia, I think were exacerbated by the years of totalitarian rule. When
people were not allowed to work out their differences through a pluralistic
political system. And the tradition of settling their differences through
violence was never really removed. It hasn't been removed in Burma either.
Because the regime itself is trying to resolve problems through violence.
Putting people in prison is violence. Killing people is violence. They are
still using violent means to resolve problems, and violence never really
resolved problems. It may keep them under control to a certain extent. So I
don't think that their methods are going to bring about permanent peace."
But people still fear that if there were an NLD-led government tomorrow
there would be a holocaust.
"Well, if you look back to what Burma was like after independence, I don't
think you can say that. The first Karen insurgencies of course started the
moment Burma became independent, because some groups did not accept the
Burmese government, or rather a government dominated by Burmese. But in
those days under parliamentary democracy, yes there were insurgencies which
were really a legacy of the war. There were Communist insurgencies, and
there were a few ethnic insurgencies, but the number of ethnic insurgencies
really increased dramatically under the BSPP. So you cannot really say that
it was democracy that led to all these ethnic dissatisfactions."
You believe it might be the dictatorial nature of the regime, the
repression, that caused that?
"Yes, because people were not allowed to express their dissatisfaction
through acceptable political channels. The only way they could express their
dissatisfaction was by taking up arms."
There are people in countries that border Myanmar, certainly in Thailand,
who worry about what will happen if you come to power, whether they will
have fighting all along their border.
"I think they should worry about their own country. We'll worry about ours."
But you acknowledge that the regime has come halfway to bringing some
measure of stability?
"I won't say stability. I think stability is a different issue. But I think
we will say that they have come halfway to bringing an end to armed ethnic
I drove to Mawlamyine last weekend and passed over two new bridges. The road
is greatly improved, you can drive all the way there without needing to take
a ferry any more. Has the regime also done some good in this regard?
"But isn't putting up bridges and building roads the job of any government?
If you are going to talk like that then we'll have to start making a list of
all the bridges and the roads and the railways lines that were put up by the
colonial government. If you are going to say that good government is one
which builds bridges and puts down roads and railways, then we'd have to
favor the colonial government as a very good government. But I doubt that
the regime would accept such a definition. So, all right, they have put up
bridges, there is nothing wrong with it, and bridges are a good thing - if
they are built strongly and won't fall down under the weight of too many
cars; but this is just normal work that any government would be expected to
do and I would not think that this is a justification for a military regime
to keep clinging to power."
Members of the regime often say that you may disagree with much of what we
do, but there is never any acknowledgement of the good things we do.
"Well, wouldn't you have thought that the ASEAN countries acknowledge it
more than enough? To make up for whoever it is who do not. A lot of the
ASEAN countries talk about the ceasefire agreements, and they also talk
about the so-called economic boom - but they've stopped talking about that
now, although two or three years ago they were talking about the hotels, the
cars and the roads and so on. So what does the regime mean by saying nobody
talks about it? People talked about it a lot. But they've stopped talking
about it, because you can't go on talking about the hotels when the hotels
are empty. And you can't go on talking about the roads when the roads are
empty of the expected new traffic. You can't go on talking about them again
and again. How often do we expect people to go on talking about bridges and
roads and hotels?"
But they feel that it would be nice if the West, which has led the move to
sanctions and pretty relentlessly criticizes them, would occasionally
acknowledge that they have done something that benefitted the people. It
might be a gesture that might bring a response.
"The West would be least inclined to be impressed by hotels and roads and
Why? This is more than a lot of developing countries do.
"I don't think the West would be impressed by hotels. The tourists might be
pleased with them. Bridges, yes. I'm not sure that bridges are really
considered that impressive any more."
The regime feels that this begrudging attitude towards them makes them feel
that if they do something positive, if they move towards you in a
conciliatory gesture or whatever, that all they will get is to be ignored or
"But what sort of gesture have they ever made?"
They spoke to some of your people two or three years ago, they allowed you
to have your Congress last year, but each time they do this the ante is
raised and they are expected to do something else.
"Oh, no, when we were allowed to have the Congress, we were very very loud
with our words of appreciation. Yes, we said we appreciated the fact that we
were able to hold the Congress. So it's not true. Every time they made a
gesture we acknowledged it - but to the degree of the importance of the
gesture. Not more than that. But it didn't mean that after acknowledging the
gesture then we sat back and did nothing. Because we went ahead with our
work. But we certainly said that we appreciated it very much. I said it
myself so I should know."
The ASEAN policy of constructive engagement is one which you feel is not
"It hasn't succeeded. What has it done? When ASEAN was considering Burma as
a permanent member a couple of years ago, we made two points. One was that
admitting Burma as a member would make the regime more repressive, because
they would think that their policies have been endorsed. They would see it
as a seal of approval. Or, at least, if it was not a seal of approval it was
a sign that the ASEAN countries didn't mind about the human rights record of
the military regime. And the second thing we said was that Burma under this
military regime was not going to be an asset to the organization. And I
think we can claim that both these views have been vindicated."
They are more repressive since joining ASEAN?
"Oh, they have got much much more repressive since they became a full member
of ASEAN. And I don't think that really Burma is much of a credit to ASEAN
these days. It's not exactly a shining example for them."
The US espouses constructive engagement on China but not on Myanmar. This
inconsistency puzzles many people, even Western diplomats. How do you
"I think the situation in China is different. And surprising as it may sound
to some people, we think that Chinese dissidents have a much better deal
than we have. In China, even when I was under house arrest, I would listen
to the radio and I would be surprised by the fact that families of
dissidents could talk to foreign correspondents and express their concern
about their husbands and fathers and they would not be arrested. They would
have these interviews quite freely. And I think the Chinese are quite
sensible about give and take as regards dissidents. And with give and take
with the Western democracies. The military regime here is far more
intransigent and that's why I think one can say that constructive engagement
with China bears more results than constructive engagement with Burma. I
don't see any sort of give and take with regards to human rights taking
place here - either between Burma and the Western democracies, or between
Burma and the ASEAN countries."
Has there been any give on the other side?
"Yes. But no give on the side of the regime. This is what we say ad nauseum
as well, that the regime does not want give and take, but they take all and
we give all. But that's not what you mean by give and take. It's meant to be
a bit of both on both sides."
Talking about how they treat you, Dr Mathahir once said it's not as if you
are being strung up.
"Well, that's right. Again that's his personal opinion. And it's not one
with which we agree."
If you came to power you would not feel uncomfortable with such ASEAN
"No, you don't. Politics is not like that."
You feel the US is giving you adequate support?
"Yes, I think they support us very very staunchly. And so do other
democracies, particularly the Scandinavian countries. And the EU."
The regime worries that if you come to power you might seek retribution of
"We have always said that we are not interested in vengeance. That's our
Your principle goal is the welfare of the people, not yourself or your
"Well, the welfare of the people, yes. I mean, what I need for my own
welfare I'd be better off not doing politics. If I were just concerned for
my own welfare."
If your principle interest is the people of your country, why don't you step
aside and let someone else deal with representatives of the government in a
dialogue - given that the regime says it will talk to anyone in your party
"But that's just an excuse. They have made a lot of misleading statements
about dialogue. And they have shown a lack of sincerity with regard to
You feel that even if you agreed to this they would not engage in
"No, no. They are not engaging in dialogue because they don't want to,
because they don't want to give up power. It's not because there's any real
reason for not engaging in dialogue."
Why not give it another try and say you will send someone else?
"We have said that we would agree to lower level negotiations which would
not involve me."
"Yes. Actually, we agreed to that in 1997 when it was put to us through a
third party. And when we agreed, they didn't come back on it, so we knew
that they were not sincere. It's just an excuse. They are always coming up
with new excuses."
But your party has put out statements saying that the regime should not
demand that you not be present, that they choose their representatives to
dialogue and you choose yours.
"Right, that's true. Of course, we've always said that what we want is
genuine political dialogue not a dictated set showpiece."
But your choice is that you should represent your party?
"We have not said who we are going to choose. But we said we'll choose our
own representatives. They can't dictate to us. Then will they let us dictate
to them whom they choose as their representatives? How would you call it
genuine political dialogue if each side does not have the right to determine
its own representatives. If one side is going to dictate terms under which
the other side participates in the negotiations that's not really
negotiations at all."
What is wrong with taking that step?
"What step? That we allow them to decide on the representatives from our
Yes, if it's for the good of the people, if it might resolve the impasse.
"Well, how would you call this in terms of equality?
It's not equal, but does it matter if it gets the process moving?
"But then that's not genuine political dialogue. And would you not say that
what we need is genuine political dialogue?"
Of course, but they may be genuine - it's just that they don't like dealing
"Well, if they didn't like dealing with me, why didn't they have a dialogue
with our party chairman U Aung Shwe when I was under house arrest for six
years and he asked for it so many times over and over again. It was after I
was released from house arrest they brought out this excuse that they didn't
want to talk to me, that's why they were not having negotiations. But when I
was under house arrest, U Aung Shwe actually asked to talk to them and at
one point he was not even asking them for broad political negotiations, he
was simply asking to discuss with them the working procedures of the
National Convention - because it was so undemocratic. And they refused to
talk to him. So if what they wanted was dialogue without me, they had six
years in which to do it."
Okay but that's the past, now you say you would be agreeable to a dialogue
process starting that did not include you but rather other members of your
"They didn't talk about dialogue without me at all then, it was only after I
was released that they said that the reason why they couldn't have dialogue
with the NLD was because they didn't want to talk to me. So it's an obvious
But whatever happened in the past, let me get it right: you are agreeable to
lower level talks that do not include you?
"We have said we were agreeable. We have said that in 1997. And then they
pretended that they had heard nothing about it."
That means their only other objection to talks is this committee that you
set up representing parliament. They want you to rescind this parliamentary
"We are not going to rescind it, because that's blackmail. They've taken our
people into detention, and then they say that if you dissolve this committee
then we'll release them. That's blackmail. And we are not going to fall for
it. And if you read our paper you will know exactly why we don't believe
that they will really move towards dialogue simply because we give into some
of their demands. They are always coming up with some new excuse or the
So you are not agreeable to rescinding the parliamentary committee?
"No. Not until parliament has been convened. We said that if you want to
rescind the committee, it's very easy: convene parliament. Because we have
made it quite clear that this committee stays only until parliament is
Politics is the art of the possible. You seem to be holding out for the
"Why? What are we holding out for that is impossible?
Parliament for a start. They are not going to give it to you.
"Well, that's what they say. In how many countries have military regimes
absolutely insisted that they were not going to give in and they had to give
in anyway. So what's so impossible about asking for change?"
In practical terms there are very few people who feel that you are going to
You know them yourself, you know they are not going to do this.
"Well, haven't there been regimes just as bad, just as obdurate, and
actually far more efficient, but in the end they had to agree to change. And
this is what surprises me when people say: how can you expect change? As if
the world has not been changing and is not changing all the time. It is all
the time and people keep on being surprised because we expect change.
The regime is not going to give in on this and you won't rescind the
committee. Everybody is in an entrenched position: you, the regime and
Western governments. Nobody is willing to move out of their positions. And
the ones who lose out and suffer are the people of Myanmar.
"Now that's not fair. You've just said to me: would we agree to lower level
dialogue? And I said: yes, we agree to that. So that shows that we were not
entrenched. But they were entrenched. I mean, there have been other cases
like that when we have said, yes, we are prepared to be flexible. And they
have not been prepared to be flexible. So you cannot say that we have been
in an entrenched position."
That is the feeling though, that you are all entrenched.
"It may be a feeling, but that is because people have not studied the
situation carefully enough."
Some even start to think that you are all content with the status quo, the
"No, nobody is happy with the status quo. If people were happy with the
status quo they would not try to change it. It's because we are not happy
with the status quo that we are trying to change it."
There is certainly a degree of cynicism building up, that nothing is moving.
"Well, I don't know where that cynicism is building up. But it's certainly
not with us."
It is just very sad for an outsider coming in, asking the same questions,
getting the same answers from all sides.
"Yes, for a journalist it's boring, the same answers. It's not a new story.
But it doesn't mean that because you get the same answers, that that's the
end of the world. In some countries I think you get the same answers for
In an interview early last year you were reported as saying: The NLD is
prepared to consider all options including power sharing with the ruling
"I think they misquoted me. We just said that we didn't rule out anything.
We are prepared to discuss anything on the negotiation table."
So you don't rule out power sharing?
"No. We say we don't rule out anything before negotiations. After all,
that's what negotiations are for. To find out what one can accept."
You are regarded as inflexible by the regime, and increasingly by people
within Myanmar. Even NLD-friendly diplomats feel you have been too
"Inflexible in what way?"
Not willing to compromise and be more conciliatory.
"Well, we have compromised. Now we can keep coming back to this business of
dialogue. We have compromised a great deal, and suggested all the different
ways in which we could start dialogues so that they don't need to lose face
and they can just start it going. But they wouldn't accept any of these
Obviously you feel that this is an unfair characterisation.
"I don't think of it as fair or unfair. I think it is inevitable in such
situations. Because if you stand up to a military regime and stick to our
guns, you are accused of being inflexible. You have to try to make a
distinction between standing up for certain basic principles, and between
inflexibility. If you are to be considered flexible only if you give up all
the basic democratic principles which we are fighting for, then why would we
be doing with this movement at all?"
The military regime is implacably opposed to having you as the leader of the
"It's not their business. It's really not their business. I mean, neither
the NLD nor I have ever said that our aim is to make me the leader of this
country. And in any case, that is a question for the people of Burma to
decide, not for the military."
I think most people assume that if the NLD takes over, you would be the
leader, and to be fair I think this is the assumption of most of the world.
"Well, they can make their own assumptions. They are free to do so. We
believe in the freedom of belief and thought."
You are saying that if an NLD government comes about you will not
necessarily be its leader?
"No, not necessarily. I mean, where is there a rule of law that I must
become the leader of this country when the NLD comes to power? I mean, there
To be realistic you are equated with the party, you are the figurehead of
the party. This is reality.
"Yes. This is reality. But that doesn't mean that just because I am equated
with the party I will necessarily become the leader of Burma when the NLD
comes to power. I may or I may not. There are many imponderables in
People say you are a crusader not a politician.
"A crusader? Well, that's a very romantic way of looking at it. If you
consider the things that we have to do every day at the NLD office, I think
they would realize that we are very much down to earth politicians. We just
have no time to be crusaders."
At the present time, your own party is becoming riven with defections and
members are splitting away of their own volition.
"I don't think the expression riven with defections is quite right. We have
had a few people leave - but they are working with the authorities and we
can declare this with a clear conscience and very definitely. Apart from
anything else this has been proven by the fact that an article came out in
the government media supporting them. And that only happens to people who
are working with the authorities. That's not very new either. And not very
surprising either. Because not everybody has the staying power under the
You think that is being fair to these people who have split? I'm sure that
if someone sincerely decided that for whatever reason they wanted to break
with you and they did, then the government press would still write about
"Well, they didn't break with us. What they did, what they were saying is
that they were just trying to put suggestions to us as loyal members of the
party. Now if you want to put suggestions to the NLD as loyal members, you
don't send one copy of your statement to General Khin Nyunt as well. Their
suggestions were addressed to U Aung Shwe and to Khin Nyunt. Now this is not
the action of loyal party members wanting to, you know, make a suggestion."
They say as loyal citizens of the country they were addressing both sides of
the impasse to try to seek a resolution.
"That is not what they said. They said they were loyal members of the party.
They were simply putting up suggestions. That was what was said in their
Is that true?
"Yes. In the letter written by a couple of them."
I have the letter here, as you say it is addressed to the NLD chairman U
Aung Shwe and to Gen. Khin Nyunt.
"Exactly, now if you are acting as a loyal member of the party, what is the
need to write to Secretary-1 as well?"
To try to break this impasse however you can. They say they just wrote the
letter to try to get the two sides together, to get a dialogue going.
"Well, but they were giving suggestions to us. They were not saying to the
SPDC that they should be less repressive. They were not suggesting to Khin
Nyunt that they should treat the party in a fairer way. So this in itself
indicates that this paper, this letter, is not balanced. If they were really
thinking of the welfare of the country, then it's got to be a balanced
approach. They could say to the NLD: well, you could be more flexible in
such matters, and they must also say to the SPDC that you will have to be
less repressive, you will have to stop throwing our people into prison, and
torturing them and intimidating them."
I spoke to these three men who were behind the letter, the NLD men - Than
Tun, Tin Tun Maung and Kyi Win. You regard them as basically traitors to the
party for speaking out in this way?
"We expelled Than Tun from the party two years ago, because he was trying to
create factions within the party. And U Tin Tun Maung and U Kyi Win were
also close to U Than Tun even then. But since they were not the guiding
force at that time, we did not take action against them."
Tin Tun Maung sounds reasonably persuasive and appeared sincere and not to
have had his arm twisted by the regime into doing this.
"Well, of course, he would seem to be sincere."
And they did get the signatures of 25 NLD MP-elects at one point to sign
"Yes, but I think a lot of them have withdrawn their signatures."
Does this episode not indicate a latent feeling within the party that
perhaps you should change your tack?
"No, no. Because what they are suggesting, at least as I understand from
that press conference they gave where they were asked what their grand plan
was because they said they had a plan to move things forward. And they
answered that it was lower level talks. But that is so old hat for us,
because as I say this was taken off in 1997 and put to one side. So what's
the grand plan? It becomes nothing. Just lower level talks. And the SPDC had
already indicated towards the end of 1997 that they were not interested in
lower level talks."
People complain of your imperious manner. That you do not brook any dissent
against your views within the party.
"Well, when U Than Tun brought out his paper two years ago, we actually had
a very very thorough discussion with him. We invited him to discuss it with
us - with the whole Executive Committee not just me. And if we brooked no
dissent we would have kicked him out straight away. But we didn't. And we
discussed the matter very thoroughly. And they were allowed full opportunity
to express their views. And they were not able to come up with any
justification for what they were doing, and they still went on trying to
create factions within the party. So we took action against them under the
disciplinary committee of the party. We do have rules in the party."