Daw Aung San Suu Kyi: 'Burma has turned a page, and I don't want it to remain blank'

The Monday Interview: The Secretary of Burma's National League for Democracy
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The Independent Online

The small, grubby concrete building stands on a broad road in the middle of leafy Rangoon, but one doesn't pay much attention to the architecture because the headquarters of Burma's National League for Democracy (NLD) is always a mass of people these days: students wearing lungi flapping fans; grizzled, whiskery veterans; women with tiny babies; all clustered round on their haunches on the pavement outside. The sprawling, dingy space within is a constant hubbub of activity; a tiny urban village, a domesticated political commune.

A woman in the corner is going full pelt with a treadle sewing machine, running up party flags; at the far end a free English lesson is in progress, open to all, party members or not. A few foreign journalists sit and stew; party members scoop drinking water out of a cauldron that sits on a tripod behind a column. The librarian marshals her small, battered collection of books.

There is a sudden commotion at the door, an urgent hushed announcement, and the men and women around the entrance stop whatever they are doing and stand up straight, forming two neat lines. The party's general secretary, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, steps briskly into the office, arm swinging like a soldier, the ghost of a smile on her face, and vanishes up the stairs.

Freed from house arrest one week ago today, the world's most famous former political prisoner has established a simple routine: mornings at her lakeside home, meeting diplomats and other important people; afternoons upstairs at the NLD's HQ, closeted with party colleagues, representatives of Burma's ethnic minorities – and squeezing in foreign journalists willing to wait their turn.

The door to the long, shabby, boiling hot committee room squeaks open, and the famous lady in the baby blue bodice and the long narrow traditional skirt is discovered sitting at one corner of the long table.

She rises: a firm handshake, very long fingers; a head rather large for the slim, fragile-looking frame – some say she has lost weight since she was last in public, and she is certainly ashy pale. But the gaze of her large brown eyes is bold and steady. "I'm sorry to have kept you waiting such a long time," she says in her cut-glass Oxford accent. "Please give my regards to all our old friends at The Independent."

Burma is a nation of 45 million people with the most repressive and regressive government in Asia. If it has a hope of transformation, that hope rests on the narrow, sloping shoulders of this slight 56-year-old woman. In 1988 Suu Kyi was an academic-turned-housewife, happily settled in a tall Victorian house in Oxford, with a professor husband, two teenage sons and Puppy, a Himalayan terrier. But her father was Aung San, the foremost hero of Burma's struggle for independence, and in 1988 Suu Kyi was caught up in the struggle for democratic change and catapulted, thanks to the charisma of her father, into becoming its leader and figurehead.

Twelve years ago Suu Kyi's party won a general election with more than 80 per cent of the seats, but the military rulers brushed aside the result to stay in power. Politically Burma has been stuck in the mud ever since. With her release last week, after 19 months confined to her home, her country is finally on the move again. Or is it? "I've always said I'm a cautious optimist," she says. "So in one sense I agree with people when they say that. At least we're somewhere new where we have not been and I would cautiously say that where we are is better than where we have ever been.

"But I think the more important thing is where we're going to, and how quickly."

Burma has long been one of the most isolated nations. The day after Suu Kyi's release, the splash headline in The New Light of Myanmar, the national newspaper (Myanmar being the regime's term for Burma) read: "Senior General Than Shwe meets President of Socialist Republic of Vietnam", above a photograph of the two on either side of a large vase of flowers. Nowhere in the paper was there a hint of the event that last Monday thrust Burma to the top of news schedules all over the world.

Twenty years ago, Burma was truly cut off. Today the best efforts of the generals cannot keep the world at bay, and news of Suu Kyi's release spread as quickly here as everywhere else. A senior Western diplomat in Rangoon says: "The government is committed to creating a multiparty system at some point. They couldn't keep her under arrest for domestic political reasons. They know everyone's listening to the Voice of America and the BBC: people are extraordinarily well-informed."

And the economic impact of her release was immediate: within days of her release, the kyat, the local currency, had risen 30 per cent against the dollar, merely because Suu Kyi was back in business.

Her country is at a fateful juncture. On the face of it, Suu Kyi's release is a rerun of 1995, when she emerged from her house after nearly six years' confinement. Within months relations turned sour. But one man close to the negotiating process insists today is very different. "In 1995 this country was booming, the generals thought they would succeed economically so they would not need to deal with their opponents ... Today both the regime and the NLD need each other. In 1995 the international community was split, with the regional countries supporting the regime and the West supporting Suu Kyi. Today there is no split. We're in a much better situation than ever before."

Suu Kyi herself wouldn't go quite that far. "I believe in an official statement the authorities said something about turning a new page, and I certainly don't want the page to remain blank for a long time – blank until it turns grubby.

"What we want is for the page to be filled up ... quickly with a lot of useful and desirable stuff. The confidence-building stage is over, and it has to be over, you can't keep on at that stage for ever, it becomes counter-productive."

Does that mean she is waiting for the regime to make the next move? "I don't think I would put it like that. I think if it is the right time, either side should be prepared to make the right move. It's not a question of you first or me first."

One Western insider says: "Until last Monday they were talking to each other about finding some understanding, some room. Now it's a test: they are saying, let's see if when she's out it corresponds to what we thought. And on her side she's seeing how far she can do what she wants."

So far Suu Kyi has not been disagreeably surprised. "We have both kept our sides of the bargain ... I have not been stopped from going wherever I pleased and they have not followed us, they have not made problems for some of our supporters ... I think we've kept our side of the bargain because we've made it clear to our people that we don't want them to come here and turn every day into a political rally."

The challenge now is to go further: to build agreements on the basis of which the country can re-engage with the outside world, so that, for example, development aid can relieve schools and hospitals. The urgency of that challenge could not be clearer to Suu Kyi. And her admirers in Rangoon's diplomatic community wish the generals could grasp the opportunity she represents.

One who has watched her closely since her arrest says: "She's the top. I say this to the regime: she is completely genuine, she has the intellectual capacity – why are you so suspicious? Go with her!"

Another diplomat who sees her regularly says:"She's the real ticket, an extraordinary leader. She's very capable of running the country – not by herself, of course – capable of providing the people with a vision of the future, to allow them to overcome the sins of the past." Such colossal expectations have been the staple of Suu Kyi's life since 1988. She seems at ease with them now. "I once said something to a friend about my normal way of living, and she said, 'you don't lead a normal life at all'!" She laughs. "So I'm very wary of using the term normal."

Political life has yet to resume at the fever pitch of 1995. But she's keeping busy. "I've been to see one or two people; an old aunt of mine, I went to pay my respects to an abbot who has been very kind to us – but nothing much, because there hasn't been time. And by the time I leave this office I'm so tired, all I want to do is run home and have a bath!"

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