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Aung San Suu Kyi: ‘I’m going to be the one who is managing the government’

Aung San Suu Kyi on the campaign trail last month. (Andre Malerba/Getty Images)

By Lally Weymouth
November 20, 2015

NAYPYIDAW, BURMA — Aung San Suu Kyi is no longer sitting in her lakeside home in Yangon, waiting for her restoration. It has finally arrived. The woman who endured house arrest for the better part of 20 years heads the party that won a landslide election victory this month over the very generals who held her captive. In her office here, she talked with The Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth about launching a democracy, ending ethnic violence, sharing power with the military and changing the constitution so that she can become president. Edited excerpts follow.

Were you surprised by your landslide? 

No, not surprised. We knew we had the support of the public, but we were worried there might be too many irregularities. It started off with all the voting lists being not quite adequate.

There were problems with the voter lists? 

Early on, just before the official campaign period started, the Union Election Commission chairman said he would be responsible for only 30 percent of the voter lists. That was a little bit worrying. So, I said to the public, “We’ll have to take care of the rest of the 70 percent that remains, won’t we?”

In some regions, people didn’t even vote for their ethnic parties — they voted for you. 

We have had landslides before, don’t forget.

In 1990, right? Were you worried the military might interfere like they did then? 

We still haven’t finished the process [of transitioning governance from military to civilian control]. And that goes on until March, according to the constitution. Of course, this is not 1990. Communications are so good, and the public is playing a very active role in making sure that everything goes as it should go.

The military controls 25 percent of parliament. Do you think you will be able to work with the commander in chief, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing? 

We can work with anybody. . . . You can’t avoid working with the military if you’re going to form a government.

Soon you’ll discuss the transition with the president and the commander in chief? 

They say they are going to meet me after the election commission has finished its work. I’m not quite sure what that means.

So they haven’t given you a date? 

No. Not yet. I suppose it means that they will wait 45 days. It is not very specific.

Are you worried? 

Of course, we are concerned. We’ve had too many rather strange experiences in the past not to be concerned. But we know the public is right behind us and that everybody who has been involved in the process has made public statements to the effect that they will honor the results of the election.

I can’t imagine spending almost 20 years under house arrest. 

I’m not sure that 20 years in that house was a difficult thing. I quite like that house. I got to read a lot. I got a lot of sleep, which I don’t do now.

You believed that democracy would come one day? 

Oh, yes. Because if you believe in the people, you believe in democracy.

You recently said that you are going to be “above the president” in the new government. Does that mean you want to change the constitution, which bars you from becoming president because you have children who are citizens of another country? 

I don’t really see what is so attractive about the title of president. What we want is the opportunity to be able to work for our country. And whether I am called president or something else, that is not relevant, really.

But it is relevant in some ways. When there is a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations — or another gathering of heads of state — they are going to want you there. They are not going to want someone else. 

I’ll go there. I’ll go along with the president, and he can sit beside me.

Do you believe the foreign-born-children provision was written into the constitution to prevent you from becoming president? 

I think so.

Can you persuade the military to change it? 

They may not change it immediately. And that is something we have to be prepared for. Changing a constitution sometimes takes time.

But in the past you have said that constitutions are made to be changed. 

I do believe the constitution will be changed sometime. But I’m not saying it will be changed in the next two months. I think it should be changed within a reasonable period of time.

So you are going to appoint a president? 


Who would you appoint? 

I am not going to tell you that.

Would you accept the position of speaker of the parliament? 

I am going to be the one who is managing the government. I think that’s as far as I should go.

How do you see your country’s relationship with the United States? 

Good, I hope.

Do you give the U.S. administration some credit for the fact these elections transpired the way they did? 

No, the reason we were elected is because of our people. Not because of anybody else.

The Obama administration took a big interest in this country. 

A lot of administrations are taking a big interest in what is going on here.

But the United States lifted most of the sanctions. Then President Obama and Secretaries of State Clinton and Kerry visited. It seems they made a huge effort. 

Yes. But a lot of other countries have made an effort, too: Great Britain and Norway and the Scandinavian countries. A lot of countries have been very supportive of our democratization process, so I don’t want to single out any particular one.

But as I am writing for an American paper, the Americans are interested in hearing about our contribution. 

We have very, very good American friends, and I am very appreciative of all they have done over so many years. And I hope they will continue doing their best.

Does that mean lifting the remaining sanctions? 

Sanctions are not the only thing that matters with regard to progress in this country.

What else would you like to see the U.S. and the international community do? 

At the moment, I hope that everybody will support a smooth and peaceful transition and that everybody will understand that the people have expressed their will very clearly, and this must be respected.

But then what? 

Once we are in government, we will tell you what we want.

I assume you would like businesses to come here? 

Of course. But I want the right kind of businesses with the right kind of attitude. I have always said that I want businesses that are successful. But, on the other hand, we have got to profit out of the relationship as well. It is not going to be a one-sided business.

Would you like to see the rest of the U.S. sanctions lifted? 

Well, with a genuinely democratic government in power, I do not see why they would need to keep sanctions on.

So what else is on your wish list for when you come to power? 

I don’t like to think of it as a wish list. I like to think of it as my hardworking agenda.

How do you see Myanmar’s relationship with China? 

Good. We intend to maintain good relations with all our neighbors.

In the non-aligned pattern? 

Yes. We have been very successful with that foreign policy since we gained independence.

There is a lot of discussion about China’s motives — are they good, are they bad? What is their aim in the South China Sea? What is your view? 

Of course the United States’ view of China is not exactly the same as other people’s views.

So what is your view? 

Our view is that China is our neighbor, and we intend to have good relations with our neighbors.

Do you think you can really change this country? You say you want to enhance the standard of living. 

There are lots of things we want to enhance, beginning with peace and security.

Are you referring to the recent cease-fire between the government and some of Myanmar’s ethnic groups? 

Security is not just about the cease-fire. It is also about the rule of law. People need to feel secure in the towns. They never know what rules they have to play by, because there is no rule of law. . . . We want courts that are clean. And we have good laws, but we want to make sure that these laws are implemented in the right way with due process.

Another concern of the international community is the treatment of Myanmar’s Rohingya ethnic group, which is Muslim. 

That is a problem. I don’t deny it. But I wonder why they think there are no other problems in this country. It is a very skewed view of the situation — to look at it as if this is the only problem our country has to cope with. We were talking about the cease-fire agreement earlier. Seventeen groups need to sign the cease-fire, and only eight so far have signed. I would have thought that was a problem, too.

Do you have any sympathy for the Rohingyas? 

I have sympathy for all people who are suffering in the world. Not just in Burma.

Some say the current government encouraged extremist Buddhist monks, like the group Ma Ba Tha, to attack Muslims and inflame ethnic tensions during the campaign. 

I have to say that a lot of religious propaganda was used against the National League for Democracy [my party] during the campaign. We have filed official complaints, and we have even filed cases with the police in some areas.

Ma Ba Tha charged that if people voted for the NLD, that would jeopardize Myanmar’s ethnic purity — that the country would be overrun by Muslims. 

Absolutely. That is wrong, and it is unconstitutional. The constitution states very clearly that religion must not be used for political purposes. But the authorities did nothing about all this propaganda.

It is interesting in that it didn’t really work. 

It did work in some areas — in a few areas on the borders. But we had to make people understand that this was false propaganda.

Do you share the view that in the past year or so, this government has been backsliding on reforms? 

They’ve been backsliding on reforms for a few years now.

In what way? 

I heard that a couple of days ago one of our journalists — he is the editor of Eleven Weekly, which is very supportive of the democratic movement — was stopped at the airport from leaving the country. He was just leaving for a visit. That seems a little strange.

Going back to the military, what do you think their red lines are for your government? And what are your red lines? 

I don’t think that is something we can discuss now. I have to meet the commander in chief first.

Are you in favor of amnesty for the armed forces? 

The term we use is “national reconciliation.” 

But there must be people who are very bitter about the way they were treated. 

I don’t know that bitterness really helps anybody.

But that’s hard to say to people who were put in jail. 

Life is hard. A lot of us have been put in jail. I can trot out any number of people from the NLD who have been in prison. I always say: “You want to see people who have been in prison? What do you want — five years, six years, 10 years, 20 years? We can provide all of them from the NLD.” And they are not bitter. A lot of people who have suffered tremendously are only interested in building up a better future.

Where would you like to see the country five years from now? 

Not where it is now. I always think of the future of a country as an unending process. I want to see it much further along the road than it is now.

The electricity appears to be really a problem here. It goes on and off frequently. 

I always say when the lights go off, “This proves that we are in Burma.” It is normal. The lights going off is the least of our problems.

How big an issue is land reform? 

Agriculture is a big thing. Seventy percent of our people live in rural areas.

There are no land titles, is that correct? 

Under the constitution, the state owns all the land. So every owner has the land for as long as the state allows him or her to have it. When it comes to our farmers, they are not able to use the land as collateral. That is a pretty big problem, and we need to sort it out.

Don’t you also need land titles to create a tax system? 

Taxation is also a big problem in this country. We don’t have a “tax culture” as such.

So how do you raise revenue? 

We have got to make people understand why they have to pay taxes. We have got to prove that taxes are used for their benefit and not to line the pockets of those in power, which is what has been happening for many decades. There is taxation now, but it is not something the state could live off.

What would you like your legacy to be? 

I would like to think that our age was the age that got the country going. I haven’t even started yet. So let’s wait until then before we start talking about legacies.

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