By Leslie Kean and Dennis Bernstein on Nov 13, 2010
The Burmese Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi talked to us over a noisy phone line from her Rangoon headquarters in mid-January. She informed us that the repression against her had escalated to violent physical attacks. Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest for six years until July 1995, was tongue-in-cheek about the intrusive buzz on the telephone line. She said the noisy line was due to the presence of military-intelligence tape recorders, then laughed. "We couldn't survive without our sense of humor," she explained.
Aung San Suu Kyi may be the most surveilled human being on the face of the Earth. The SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council), which took over the country in 1988 and changed the name of Burma to Myanmar, sees Suu Kyi as its primary threat. She heads the popular opposition and, by virtue of her own extraordinary family history, she has a strong claim on the allegiance of the Burmese people.
Suu Kyi's father, Aung San, led the successful battle against British colonial rule in 1947. He was assassinated that same year at age thirty-two, when Suu Kyi was only two. Aung San is a legend and a national hero in Burma-in the eyes of the people and military alike. There are statues of him, museums about him, and streets named after him. His image is featured on the Burmese one-kyat bill, which has been yanked from circulation by the SLORC. When you hold the bill up to the light, the portrait of the independence hero greatly resembles his daughter. Student activists and pro-democracy protesters have adopted the note, worth less than a penny, as their flag of freedom, waving it during protest gatherings at risk of arrest. It has come to be known as the "democracy note."
Aung San Suu Kyi says that she has no intention of shying away from the legacy of her father. "I could not, as my father's daughter, remain indifferent to all that was going on," she declared before an audience of 500,000 at the beginning of her campaign in 1988. "This national crisis could in fact be called the second struggle for national independence."
For its part, the SLORC – buoyed by billions from Burma's booming drug trade and foreign investment – shows no intention of turning over power peacefully. Indeed, judging from our conversations and the increasing violence in Burma, further repression and major bloodshed loom on the horizon as a distinct possibility, although Aung San Suu Kyi and her followers remain steadfastly committed to the path of nonviolence.
Suu Kyi won the overwhelming support of the people of Burma during her "revolution-of-the-spirit" campaign for democracy in 1988-1989, following a bloody takeover by the SLORC in which thousands of demonstrators were massacred in the streets. Her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won a landslide victory in the 1990 elections. She was under house arrest and was not an official candidate, though the triumph of the NLD was vindication for Sun Kyi.
In her most famous essay, "Freedom From Fear," released in 1991, Aung San Suu Kyi explains the necessity for individual transformation to bring about real change. "It is not enough merely to call for freedom, democracy, and human rights. There has to be a united determination to persevere in the struggle, to make sacrifices in the name of enduring truths, to resist the corrupting influences of desire, ill will, ignorance, and fear. Among the basic freedoms to which men aspire that their lives might be full and uncramped, freedom from fear stands out as both a means and an end."
Until a few months ago, Suu Kyi was able to give speeches at her front gate every Saturday and Sunday, answering question the people submitted to her. Undaunted by roving military – intelligence video cameras and the imminent risk of arrest, thousands of Burmese would sit on old newspapers and plastic bags on the sidewalk to cheer, laugh, and listen to "the lady."
But the junta has now banned these gatherings and in recent months has kept Suu Kyi under de-facto house arrest. The authorities have arrested hundreds of her party members and prevented Suu Kyi from meeting with journalists and diplomats. If they leave her house, her bodyguards and assistants face being hauled off to one of Burma's horrific prisons.
Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 while under house arrest, and was cited by the Nobel Committee as "one of the most extraordinary examples of civil courage in Asia in recent decades." She is the recipient of numerous other prestigious international awards, and she presented the keynote address, smuggled out on videotape, to the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in September 1995.
In early November 1996, she was riding in her car to visit supporters when a mob of thugs – some throwing stones, some wielding iron bars – surrounded the vehicle and smashed the windshield. This was in an area controlled by government forces, who did nothing to intervene.
When we last spoke with Aung San Suu Kyi in January, she expressed a heightened urgency about the situation. She was alarmed about the mass arrests of her colleagues, the increasing poverty of the Burmese people, and the upsurge of heroin use on university campuses. She was also outspoken about the need for economic sanctions against the SLORC.
Q: The attack on you and your colleagues in your cars in early November was a serious threat to your security. What were your thoughts in that moment when your car was being attacked?
Aung San Suu Kyi: It was quite interesting. [She laughs.] I was fairly detached. I saw it all as an observer. There were all these faces crowding in toward the car, and there was one man in front with an iron bar in his hand who I assume was the one who made the big gash in my windscreen. I just said, "Keep moving." I made the decision that we were simply going to continue on to meet the crowds that had come to support us. One of the boys who was in the car with us was a bit angry about the whole thing, so I spent some time calming him down and telling him not to be angry. But it was clear to us that the attack was a deliberate attempt to harm us badly or even kill us.
It is, of course, very serious. But we do not consider our own personal safety as any more serious than the safety and security of the people in general.
Q: Since President Clinton signed a law in September that would impose sanctions if conditions worsened in Burma, repression against you and your people has increased. Arrests of NLD members have increased; you were physically attacked in your car by thugs; students have been arrested and universities closed; your movements have been severely restricted; your weekend speeches have been canceled; and you are not allowed to meet freely with journalists and diplomats. Do you think this satisfies the conditions in the U.S. law for sanctions to be placed on Burma?
Suu Kyi: Yes, I think so. If the restrictions on the work of my party and on me personally are not removed in the very, very near future – that is in a matter of days – I think the United States should start thinking seriously of sanctions. This is really about as bad as it has ever been.
I do not like to encourage personalized politics, so we would not like it to be thought that just because certain political personalities were attacked, this means the situation is very grave. The true gravity of the situation comes from the fact that ordinary members of the NLD are repressed all the time. We don't want a completely paralyzed political organization, while a select few leaders are protected by international attention.
Q: How many NLD people have been arrested since November?
Suu Kyi: There must be about a hundred. Some are young members of the NLD youth wing who were arrested because they were supposed to have been involved in the organization of the student demonstrations that took place over the last few months.
Q: Witnesses report that the car attackers were paid by the SLORC and bused in to do the job. Some of them may have been members of the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), the SLORC's so-called civilian social-welfare organization. What has been the role of this SLORC front group in the increasing violence?
Suu Kyi: The USDA is increasingly becoming a branch of the local authorities. On Burmese New Year's Day, the USDA people were sent over to my house to physically break up the NLD efforts to take part in a fish-releasing ceremony. In another incident, members of the USDA, most of them students, were instructed to throw tomatoes at me at the anniversary of the death of Burma's first democratic prime minister, U Nu. Fortunately, they didn't actually get into action with the tomatoes, although they were in position with crates of tomatoes when my car came by.
Sadly, many students are members of the USDA because they're forced to be, partly through incentives and partly through threats. In some schools, they are threatened that if they don't become a member of the USDA, they will not be allowed to take their examinations, or they will not be given good grades. I received a letter from a teacher who said that in her school those who want to go to the classes reserved for the best students have to become members of the USDA. So, students must join for their own survival.
The world community must realize that the USDA is not an innocent social-welfare organization, as it claims to be, but an organization being used by the authorities as a gang of thugs. Their operations resemble those of the Nazi Brown Shirts. The SLORC sent people from a so-called social-welfare organization to beat up other people taking part in a nonviolent, religious ceremony. I must say that that amounts to something very, very close to what the Brown Shirts used to do in Germany.
Q: There is a movement in the United States and Europe to pressure corporations to stop doing business in Burma. How do these investments – such as those from Unocal and its partner, Total Oil of France – affect the prospects for democracy for Burma?
Suu Kyi: These companies do create jobs for some people but what they're mainly going to do is make an already wealthy elite wealthier, and increase its greed and strong desire to hang on to power. So immediately and in the long run, these companies – harm the democratic process a great deal.
Q: The SLORC claims that its economic programs for modernization, such as building roads and infrastructure, are helping the people and bringing them benefits.
Suu Kyi: A lot of the roads, bridges, railways, and such are built through the use of forced labor, and that is causing the people great suffering. What we put into this in the form of human suffering is not worth what comes out of it.
I think corporations should give more attention to this suffering and should wait to invest until there is a responsible government in Burma. I do not think it is a good idea to separate economics from politics; in fact, I do not think economics can be separated from politics It's quite understandable that many business concerns think only about their own profits It's up to the public to put as much pressure as it can on these companies, through shareholder resolutions and public actions.
Apart from the fact they should consider the moral implications of investment in Burma, companies should also take into consideration that investing in Burma now is not going to be of any benefit to them in more than the very short term, because conditions in Burma are such that healthy economic development is simply not possible. Unless there is free and fair competition, there can't be healthy economic development. And what we have in Burma now is not an open-market economy that allows free and fair competition, but a form of colonialism makes a few people very, very wealthy. It's what you would crony capitalism.
Q: Does your support for sanctions impede your chances the SLORC will enter into dialogue with the NLD?
Suu Kyi: The government has hinted at this possibility. However, we cannot accept this explanation for the lack of dialogue, because they did not do anything toward entering into dialogue even in the days when we were very careful not to call for sanctions. And we were very restrained for a long time, because we wanted to keep the door opened. So, I think that for the authorities to say now that calling for sanctions will prevent dialogue is a ploy to stop us from supporting sanctions. It has to be the other way around: dialogue first, then we stop our call for sanctions, because sanctions make people understand that you cannot exercise repression and at the same time expect international support.
We have been making constant efforts, all the time, to start dialogue with the SLORC, but you know it takes two. We don’t want a monologue. We would like a substantive political dialogue among the SLORC, political leaders including myself, and leaders of ethnic groups-exactly as stipulated in the U.N. General Assembly resolution on Burma.
Q: How would sanctions impact the people of Burma?
Suu Kyi: I can say with absolute confidence that the general public of Burma would be very little affected, if at all, by sanctions. So far, the kind of investments that have come in have benefited the public very little indeed. If you have been in Burma long enough, you will be aware of the fact that a small elite has developed that is extremely wealthy. Perhaps they would be affected, but my concern is not with them but with the general public. Because of rampant inflation, living standards have been dropping for the great majority of the population. The people are poorer because standards of health and education have fallen. And conditions in the rural areas are worse off than they have ever been. So, you cannot equate the so-called open-market economy adopted by the SLORC with any real development that benefits people.
Of course, there is a trickle-down effect but the trickle is a very, very small trickle. And it's dissipated very easily.
It is essential to institute a legal framework that would ensure justice and improve the quality of life in Burma immediately, because the greatest suffering among the people at the moment is caused by lack of justice and lack of the rule of law.
Q: In the United States there have been some cities and the state of Massachusetts that have chosen not to do business with companies that deal with Burma. Is this an effective means of supporting democratization in Burma?
Suu Kyi: Very much so. We would like to see more of this. It's consumer power. It's good to know that the people of different countries are really concerned and involved in the movement to help Burma. I think in some ways it's better to have the people of the world on your side than the governments of the world, even if governments can be more effective in certain directions.
Q: In November, the SLORC launched its tourism campaign called "Visit Myanmar Year." Are you still calling for tourists to boycott Burma?
Suu Kyi: Yes, my mind has not changed in any way. I still oppose "Visit Myanmar Year," and I would ask tourists to stay away. Burma is not going to run away. They should come back to Burma at a time when it is a democratic society where people are secure – where there is justice, where there is rule of law. They'll have a much better time. And they can travel around Burma with a clear conscience.
Q: In Burma today there is an increasing availability and use of heroin on college campuses. Why is that?
Suu Kyi: The government appears to be more interested in stamping out political activity than drug addiction. Very few university students on the campus could get away with engaging in political activities, but they seem to be able to get away with taking drugs. We have heard that it is very easy to obtain drugs on the university campuses.
Q: Why do you think the heroin used by students is sometimes nicknamed "freedom from fear" – the same name as your famous essay?
Suu Kyi: Perhaps it means that the only way the students can escape from the fear of the repression of the government is by taking drugs. That would be very sad, wouldn't it?
Q: The SLORC has a new partnership with drug kingpin Khun Sa, who is now called "blood brother" by the generals, even though he is one of the world's most wanted heroin smugglers.) Does this budding friendship contradict the SLORC's public declarations of fighting the drug trade?
Suu Kyi: It's very difficult to have any faith in the sincerity of the SLORC about stamping out drug production if they find it so easy to forgive a drug baron whom at one time they said they would never, never forgive and would never, never regard as anything but a drug runner. The SLORC is far more aggressive in its attitude toward the National League for Democracy than against drug traffickers.
Q: Burma provides 60 percent of the heroin imported to the United States, and many of the ethnic peoples are financially dependent on the opium crop. Do you think crop substitution in the areas where poppies are grown would be an effective way to tight addiction?
Suu Kyi: Yes, it's one way. But basically I think that in order to do something like that, you have to win the confidence of the people, and I don't think you can win people's confidence through intimidation and repression.
We are, in favor of crop-substitution programs, but first of all we would like to talk to the people concerned and discuss the problem with them. That is what democracy is all about. You talk over your problems with the people because the people are involved in the whole process of government.
As for the National League for Democracy, we are of course against the proliferation of drugs because we recognize that they are harmful, not just for our own people but for people all over the world. Certainly a democratic government would do its best to make sure that the growing of opium is eliminated in this country and that the people who depend on growing opium for their life will find other ways of earning a living.
Q: There is a burgeoning AIDS epidemic in Burma. Reports describe shooting galleries that service 200 addicts with one needle. Have you heard about this problem, and do you have plans for dealing with the underlying causes of AIDS?
Suu Kyi; We do hear that AIDS in on the increase, and that's partly due to the fact that the authorities never really attack problems at their source. They seem to think that if they insist that the problem does not exist, it will simply go away. The best way to deal with AIDS is through education. So we need a really widespread AIDS education program. In fact, what we need in Burma is education of all kinds – political, economic, and medical. AIDS education would be just part of a whole program for education, which is so badly needed in our country.
Q: In the past, you used to be able to go to your front gate every weekend and address questions submitted to you during the week by the people. Beginning with your release from house arrest in July 1995, numbers increased until the weekend gate speeches grew to about 5,000. Now that your speeches have been forbidden by the SLORC, do you feel totally cut off from your supporters?
Suu Kyi: No, I don't feel totally cut off, but of course the weekend rallies cannot continue to take place. The people still gather on Saturdays and Sundays to demonstrate their solidarity with us, which is wonderful considering how much intimidation is exercised by the authorities. I'm sure I will be able to resume my contacts with them, but when I can, I'm not prepared to say at the moment.
Q: Are you concerned that there might be other instances of physical confrontation?
Suu Kyi: It's possible. But then we look at this kind of thing as simply an occupational hazard. Leaders of political parties need to keep in contact with the people; that's what it's all about. If violence were to erupt, I am fairly confident that we could control our people. Whether or not the authorities can control theirs is another matter altogether.
Q: What do you tell people when they get discouraged?
Suu Kyi: We are confident that our cause will prevail, because that is what the great majority of the people in Burma want. We all want justice and human rights. Since what we want will benefit all the people in Burma, our cause is bound to win.
And for those who get discouraged, I would say they should search their own hearts. I have a strong belief that those working for the truth will never lose. We will be successful whether we have lost or won, since we are working for the truth. Sacrificing for the truth means victory. The National League for Democracy has promised the people that we will continue working for their benefit, knowing that we will have to sacrifice and there will be many difficulties. Our promise to them will never be broken. And we will not use any methods that require the people to take risks. If there is something to sacrifice for, we will take the risks. That is why our League has been formed. We will sacrifice ourselves at the forefront, but we will also need the goodwill, trust, and strong determination of the people.
Q: How much personal danger do you feel? Have you been threatened that if you leave your compound or try and speak to the people, you will be in trouble or you might be imprisoned?
Suu Kyi: I haven't been told anything like that, but of course the official papers are always stalking about "annihilating" our forces [she laughs again]. But we don't think about that too much. There's no time to be thinking about such things.
Leslie Kean, who writes regularly on Burma, is co-author of "Burma's
Revolution of the Spirit: The Struggle for Democratic Freedom and Dignity" (Aperture, 1994). Dennis Bernstein is an associate editor with Pacific News Service and is the co-host of "Flashpoints," a public-radio news magazine in the San Francisco Bay Area.