Aung San Suu Kyi: "This government is not capable of running the economy"

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TIME: Do you think anything significant will come out of this latest visit by the U.N. Special Envoy?

Suu Kyi: We think this is one of many initiatives going on, so we don't think it is particularly significant. As you are probably aware, this has been going on for some time. This was not the first time that Mr. De Soto has visited Burma. In fact, this is the fourth time. So it is nothing new and just one of many things going on about Burma.

TIME: In any of the initiatives that are going on, do you see any hope of the kind of dialogue that both sides talk about but have failed to achieve for all these years?

Suu Kyi: I think by now I have made it fairly clear that I am not very happy with the word "hope." I don't believe in people just hoping. We work for what we want. I always say that one has no right to hope without endeavor, so we work to try and bring about the situation that is necessary for the country, and we are confident that we will get to the negotiation table at one time or another. This is the way all such situations pan out-- even with the most truculent dictator.

TIME: Do any of these initiatives help prod a dialogue to take place, or on the contrary, do they just prolong it by offering endless chances for one side or another to make diversions?

Suu Kyi: These days I am using the analogy to answer the question which so many people ask me: what do I think about this stalemate? I have to question them about what exactly they mean by "stalemate." If you look at the democratic process as a game of chess, there have to be many, many moves before you get to checkmate. And simply because you do not make any checkmate in three moves does not mean it's stalemate. There's a vast difference between no checkmate and stalemate. This is what the democratic process is like. If you say that any of these processes nudge one or the other toward dialogue, it is not always possible to see at the time. Because if you go back to this game of chess, it is not possible to see whether one or the other will hasten the process of getting to checkmate or whether it will drag it out a bit--because sometimes in chess you move sideways, as it were. It is not a direct step-by-step pattern in one straight line.

TIME: Back to the UN: I spoke with the Foreign Minister [of Myanmar, U Win Aung] recently, and to paraphrase, his language was rather positive. He summed it up by saying the "horizon is misty," but he allowed that the dry season has just started and he suggested that perhaps clarity is not so far behind. He talked about an "exchange of views" with De Soto in which he did not characterize you as the "opposition" because, he said, "we are only a caretaker government, we are only contesting power, so I won't call them the opposition." Is this a more conciliatory tone toward you?

Suu Kyi: This is nothing new. In recent months they have been taking this line that there is no opposition in Burma. In fact, what they are really trying to get at is that they are an unopposed government--that there is no opposition in Burma. This has been going on for several months now--this statement coming from various directions that there is no opposition in Burma.

TIME: The government also spends a lot of time talking about the ethnic minorities and how until you settle that problem, no government can really function--that the next government to emerge will benefit from the kind of talks that are going on.

Suu Kyi: Why don't you talk to the ethnic minorities and find out what they feel about it? We don't represent an ethnic minority party. Mind you, in the CRPP [the Committee Representing the People's Parliament), which the NLD announced last year] there are four ethnic nationality parties represented. I would suggest that you talk to them directly. That would be better than getting my views or those of the SPDC [State Peace and Development Council], which always would, of course, be in their own favor.

TIME: But in terms of this emphasis on "security first" which SLORC [State Law and Restoration Council] and then the SPDC have talked about for as long as they have been in power...?

Suu Kyi: All military regimes use security as the reason why they should remain in power. It's nothing original.

TIME: Is security nonetheless an important element in a country that is so ethnically diverse as Burma?

Suu Kyi: Wouldn't you say that unity comes first? Out of unity comes security. I don't think you can impose security from on top. Just look at Yugoslavia. For years it seemed as if everything was quiescent, but this was not the kind of security you would like--something that was imposed on the people and not something that had arisen from trust and understanding between them. So I think we want to put unity first. Out of real unity--which can only be based on understanding and mutual respect--will come the kind of security that we really want and the people really want.

TIME: You've mentioned from the start that you are not against the military--you are the daughter of the founder of it--but what value would you place on security if you were to have a more powerful role?

Suu Kyi: Are you asking whether if the NLD were in power, would we use security as an excuse to do what we want? We certainly would not.

TIME: But would security be an important element of your program?

Suu Kyi: Every government must consider the security of the country. That is just part of the responsibilities of any government. But true security can only come out of unity within a country where there are so many ethnic nationalities.

TIME: Doesn't the number of ethnic nationalities complicate the whole political situation in Burma?

Suu Kyi: If you mean does it complicate the process of democratization, no. It's only that the SPDC wants to use it as an excuse to complicate the situation. We have very good relations with the ethnic minorities, and I would like to point out that two of the ethnic nationality parties represented in the CRPP were second and third after the NLD in the [1990 elections]. They won more seats than the NUP [the government party], which was fourth among the parties. We were of course the frontrunner. So you could say that we have managed to reach an understanding with some of the most important ethnic nationality groups. If given half a chance we could establish perfectly good relations with the ceasefire groups. If the SPDC wants to test it, why don't they let us meet the ceasefire groups and see how we get on?

TIME: Are they segregated from you?

Suu Kyi: They are not allowed to meet the NLD. I'm sure they are not allowed to, and if the SPDC really wants to find out whether we are capable of achieving unity with the ethnic nationalities in addition to the ones with whom we are already officially working together, then arrange an official meeting with the ceasefire groups. We are not afraid of such a meeting. We think that only positive things can come out of such a meeting.

TIME: Is this something that comes up in talks you would have with a visitor like De Soto? De Soto was, according to the government, apparently talking with them at some length about the ethnic minorities.

Suu Kyi: I'm sure Mr. De Soto knows--at least he should know--that four of the largest ethnic nationality parties are represented in the CRPP, so he doesn't have to ask us about our relations with them.

TIME: In the 1990 election and in the parliament that was elected, aren't the ethnic minorities an important part of that? What is your strength in that regard?

Suu Kyi: We won a majority of seats in a number of ethnic states, including the Kachin, Karen and Mon. Not in the Shan and not in the Arakan, but it is with those two parties that we are working together now--along with two other parties--in the CRPP. So there is perfect understanding and friendship between us and ethnic nationality parties. We understand them. They want to represent their own states and that's no problem for us. We can still work together. We don't believe in a zero-sum situation. It doesn't mean that if we don't win, the party that wins becomes the enemy. In fact, we look on them as our allies, and we are very happy that our allies are well represented in their states.

TIME: In terms of some kind of dialogue at some point, I was around when you had the first of two sessions of dialogue back in 1994, and when the talks broke down, that was it. Has anything moved closer to dialogue since then? Are there any kinds of initiatives going on behind the scenes?

Suu Kyi: Regarding dialogue, whatever we have to say about it we will say officially, so I'm afraid we won't say anything that is not an official party statement.

TIME: Have you pledged confidentiality on this subject to the U.N. envoy?

Suu Kyi: No, it is just our policy. If we have anything to say with regard to the climate for negotiations, we will say it officially as the NLD. I will not say it personally. The issue of negotiations is something that the party decides and makes pronouncements about, not any individual within the party.

TIME: Is there any formal discussion of this going on now within the party?

Suu Kyi: We discuss it all the time. Everybody discusses it all the time. You are discussing it and then you come and ask whether we are discussing it.

TIME: Could you give any characterization of what you would consider dialogue? Is sitting down at the table enough?

Suu Kyi: We spelled that out as well in our official statement regarding a dialogue--that it has to be a genuine political dialogue based on mutual respect and trust, and that it must be taken with the intention of doing what is best for the country. The main aim of the dialogue should be to resolve the problems of the nation, not to find who is the winner and who is the loser. That's not what it's all about. It's to try and find an answer that is acceptable to all parties concerned, which would of course require some give and take.

TIME: Did any of the talks that took place recently with the U.N. official and the World Bank official move the situation along in any way toward eventual talks?

Suu Kyi: With regard to Mr. De Soto's visit, I think we'll have to wait for the Secretary-General's statement to come out.

TIME: Did your meetings with Mr. De Soto give you any chance which you have not had earlier to talk about the situation as you see it?

Suu Kyi: As I said earlier, it is not the first of its kind. It's just one of many initiatives.

TIME: Earlier the World Bank official had come, then the U.S. raised objections, now he's come back. After the sabotage of the $1 billion proposal last time...

Suu Kyi: Wasn't that a misunderstanding on someone's part?

TIME: There was a newspaper article about this plan.

Suu Kyi: Nobody has ever confirmed this. The newspaper article got its facts wrong, so that's where you have to go to. It certainly did not come from us, so we have nothing to add to it.

TIME: It does appear, however, that there is some desire on the part of some U.N. donor countries to try and find a new approach to this stalemate. This would show the amount of economic support that is being lost by intransigence on the part of the government--not to offer money, but to show how much is being lost by the fact that no talks are going on.

Suu Kyi: I'm afraid that you would have to ask those who spoke to the SPDC about whether they went about it in a different way.

TIME: I'm told that the emphasis which would have been used last time--had the newspaper article not short-circuited the De Soto visit last time--is still being discussed: front-loading the economic issues onto the political issues.

Suu Kyi: Let's wait to hear what the Secretary-General has to say about it. Obviously, he will know better than we do.

TIME: Do you object to any of the economic factors being stressed as incentive for dialogue?

Suu Kyi: It is not for us to talk about whatever it is that Mr. De Soto talked about. That would be going beyond the lines of our part of the deal. We don't talk about what other people talk to others about. I can only talk about our side, and as I have already explained for us it is but one of many initiatives, and it is not the first time Mr. De Soto has come out here, so we just don't think about it as very new or unusual. TIME: How promising does this approach appear to be? Suu Kyi: Well, we didn't see Mr. De Soto after his last meeting with the foreign minister, so we can't say anything about it. TIME: Your remarks about other governments not lavishing aid and investment on this government in such a way as to strengthen the government... Suu Kyi: We say that the problems of Burma are due to bad government, not because the situation in Burma is bad in itself. It is because of bad government that we are in such trouble. So it is like pouring water into a bucket with a hole in it. TIME: So you haven't changed your opinion on that. Suu Kyi: No, we have had no reason to change our opinion, because our views have been vindicated by what has happened over the last two years. The mess with the economy is not due to what we did. A lot of the investors who decided not to invest in Burma did not do so because we told them not to do so. A lot of people who invested and then withdrew are from out of this country, and the reason they withdrew is because they saw for themselves that the climate is not right for sustained economic development. TIME: Many observers thought that this withdrawal of investment, together with sanctions against new investments and aid, might have put enough pressure on the government to cause it to bend. Is there any evidence this is happening? Suu Kyi: You want an interesting piece on these developments but that's not how politics works. Sometimes things move in a rather imperceptible way. There are no fireworks, and then comes a time when change comes unexpectedly. Sometimes change comes with a lot of fireworks, but not always. TIME: I guess I would infer then that nothing is moving. Suu Kyi: I am not saying that. I am only saying that if fireworks are what you are after, you will not see them. That's not the way things go all the time. But if you were to study the situation in Burma really carefully, I think you would find that things have changed considerably in the last few years. Apart from anything else, people have stopped crediting this government with the ability to run the economy. Two or three years ago there were some governments who wanted to believe that maybe the military regime was capable of running things. Now I think they all agree that this government is not capable of running the economy. And whatever they may say about sanctions--that's a different matter. The reason why people don't invest is because they have now seen that their investments will not pay off in a situation where there is no proper framework for sustained development. The World Bank itself came to the conclusion that the problems of this economy are due to the way policy is made. TIME: I've heard there was a very recent World Bank report that was very scathing in its criticism of economic policymaking here. Suu Kyi: Yes. TIME: Does the fact that certain governments which might have thought that the government was capable of running the economy have now changed their minds give you some satisfaction that your strategy of trying to discourage investment is working? Suu Kyi: We believe it is right, and mind you, it is working, not just because of what we are doing, but because of the inefficiency of this government. A lot of people have decided not to invest because this regime does not know how to run the economy, not because we have asked them not to invest. In the end I think businessmen will come in here if they think there are profits to be made, whatever we may say. The reason they are not coming in now is because they are convinced that there is not much in it for them under the present circumstances. TIME: One of the motives behind some governments' feelings that perhaps there should be another try at getting some increase in the flow of funds, at least for humanitarian causes, is the fear of China. Suu Kyi: That is an old argument, and it is always the same governments that bring it up, so it's a little bit tedious to take up that argument again and again. TIME: Does the so-called China threat scare you? Suu Kyi: What do they mean by the "China threat" to begin with? There are those who say there are so many Chinese people investing in Burma, and if we don't come in, more Chinese will come in. The reason why so many Chinese are investing in Burma is because of their geographical position. There are many Chinese investing in Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. So what's new? If they are talking about the fact that this government has good relations with the Chinese government, every single Burmese government has managed to maintain good relations with the Chinese government. This foreign policy of maintaining good relations with our neighbors--India, China and Thailand--was laid down at the very beginning by our first independent government, which was, by the way, a democratic government. So it's not the military that has achieved good relations with China. That was something that was achieved and laid down strongly by a democratic government on the principle that we need to maintain good relations with our neighbors. It's a good policy, and I have no doubt whatsoever that the next democratic government that comes in will have similarly good relations with our neighbors--perhaps even better ones. We would not abuse our neighbors the way the SPDC sometimes does when there is a dispute. TIME: As recently was the case in Thailand? Suu Kyi: We would not do that, because we don't think there is anything to be gained by being unnecessarily nasty. TIME: And yet you were one of the first to come out and denounce the violence against the Burmese Embassy in Thailand. Suu Kyi: We are against violence because we think violence begets violence. And we look at it with a long-term point of view. We are not looking at it just in terms of the next month or the next year. We are looking at it in terms of the future of our country, and we think that for the future of our country it is not a good idea to encourage violence. After all, we have had repeated experiences with political change brought about by guns and bombs, and I think it is time to put an end to that. We try to explain the reasons why we have stood up against violence because we want to get away from this vicious cycle whereby everyone who wants political change tries to have superior armed power over the others. This is not what we want. TIME: One element of the China threat appears to be the growing network of infrastructure which China is financing, which will culminate in the development of a deep-water port for China's use on the Bay of Bengal. How do you look at these developments? Suu Kyi: Of course we are concerned about any foreign venture in our country. We have to be, whether it is China, Thailand, India, or a country that is not one of our neighbors. We must be concerned about what role they are playing in the development of our country. TIME: But does this Chinese-financed infrastructure seem sinister? Suu Kyi: I don't think this is then a reason for people to say we should therefore help the SPDC more. I think that is just an excuse. If they see it as a threat, there are other ways they should go about trying to change the situation. TIME: What, for example, should people do? Suu Kyi: People should be concerned about installing a more sensible, responsible government. We've always said that what we need is a government that is accountable and transparent, so that the people know what it is doing and can judge for themselves whether or not they like what is being done. TIME: How many of your elected NLD parliament members are still in detention? Suu Kyi: I think over 40 at the last count. Not all of them are in detention, there are some in prison. TIME: How many party members are still incarcerated? Suu Kyi: We've always said that the number of political prisoners is somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000, and from what the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] has said recently, it seems to think it is somewhere over 1,000, so that is close to our estimates. TIME: Do you look upon the entry of the ICRC to Burma as a welcome development? Suu Kyi: We are waiting to find out. We've been trying to see what the ICRC can do for our political prisoners, and it's early days yet. It will take a bit of time to find out whether the authorities are genuinely interested in cooperation with the ICRC, or whether they are just going along with it until the ICRC does something that the authorities don't like. Repeat visits to visitors would be one of the tests, because we have heard that our prisoners who have spoken to the ICRC have then been harassed by the authorities. TIME: Do you look upon the government's agreement to consider the Human Rights Commission which Australia has proposed, to the point of sending officials abroad to learn more about the concept? Suu Kyi: Well, you could say that it provides SLORC with free trips abroad. TIME: There you go again. The government complains that if you would only say something nice about them... Suu Kyi: If they do something nice, we will say something nice. If they want to do something nice, I'll say something nice about them. Compared with what they write about me in the newspapers here, our criticisms really appear like songs of praise. So they have no reason for complaint. If they do something nice, we would say something nice. We have said some nice things, such as when we held some of our ceremonies. But we are certainly not going to say nice things if there are none. We cannot praise them for putting our people into detention or torturing our prisoners or harassing members of the NLD. Why say nice things about that? TIME: But how do you evaluate the ICRC's role so far. Suu Kyi: We are waiting to find out what they can achieve. So far things seem to be not so bad. TIME: How long do you think you will have to wait? With Indonesia's Megawati Sukarnoputri and Gus Dur [Abdurrahman Wahid] it's 35 years of waiting. With East Timor's Xanana Gusmao it's a lifetime. Suu Kyi: I don't think we should complain. It would be too embarrassing for us to make a fuss about waiting 11 years, when you consider what they have been through. TIME: If you use 35 years as a benchmark, you would have to wait for another 24 years. Can you hold on that long? Suu Kyi: Things don't always move at the same rhythm. Things are different from government to government and country to country. So it doesn't worry us. Change begets change, and usually at a much faster pace. TIME: So these developments right around Burma--not to mention others elsewhere--give you encouragement? Suu Kyi: Yes. And speaking of saying nice things if nice things are done, I must say that we really respect everyone involved in Indonesia, because [former president B.J.] Habibie was so admirable in the way he in which he decided not to continue in the race for the presidency, so dignified. Indonesians should be proud of how things have turned out in their country. TIME: It says a lot about compromise. Suu Kyi: Yes, we like it. I think people admire and respect Mr. Habibie for the way in which he decided to back down gracefully instead of clinging on in the face of the opposition of the people. I think many people respect him for that. I certainly respect him for that. And I respect the way in which President Wahid is interested in bringing about compromise and trust, and Megawati in the way she accepted the vice presidency shows broad mindedness. It's a good sign for our part of the world. We do want to say nice things about people. It's so much more pleasant to say nice things about other people, than to always complain. And I do want to say that we do hope that the people of East Timor are in for a period of peace and prosperity. We wish them very well. We have found the East Timorese very supportive of our struggle for democracy. TIME: What do you think about the High Court's decision to hear several NLD cases against the government? Suu Kyi: It's easy for cynical people to assume that the authorities are taking on these cases now just because the General Assembly is in session. Or they want to use these lawsuits against us. Or they may even be interested in justice, in which case we would be prepared to say very nice things about them. "