In an interview with the BBC, State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi defended the progress her government has made since coming to power one year ago in terms of infrastructural improvements, the peace process and free elections, and also speculated that the October attacks last year on border police outposts that resulted in months of area clearance operations were an effort to derail attempts to negotiate peace between Myanmar and the many ethnic armed insurgent groups. The following is the complete text of the BBC television interview.
Q: In terms of change, in the lives of ordinary people, one of the things that has happened, as in South Africa, is there is a massive sense of disappointment when a liberation movement comes into power. What have you done to make their life better?
A: In practical ways, lots of roads. You think that may not be much because you come from a country where there were roads from your grandfathers time. But in our country that means a lot. Because all-weather roads make a great difference to ones lives. Last year one of our priorities was job creation. We discovered over this one year that if you start constructing all-weather Roads and provide electrification, people start creating jobs for themselves. That is what has made one of the big differences.
But I think, we think, what we’ve done better, or what I think we have done better is take forward the peace movement. We can’t say that we are there by any means, and we can’t say we at the point where we are home and dry. But still, there has been success there, particularly because the people have become involved in it.
Q: You mentioned the peace process, and you felt proud that it was an achievement last year, but right at this moment you have some of the most bitter fighting taking place on the borders of this country with ethnic groups ?
A: But Fergal, you work for peace particularly because there is fighting. If there were no fighting there would be no need for us to work for peace. If there were no fighting at all, if all this settles down, that means the peace process is over. Now I did say at the beginning that we are not there yet.
Q: You don’t control the army, you don’t control the security forces, and when fighting breaks out, they are free to do what they have always done, rape, pillage and torture?
A: They are not free to rape, pillage and torture. That they are not free to do. They are free to go in and fight. That is in the constitution. Military matters are to be left to the army. And that is why we are trying to change the constitution, we feel very awkward about it. Amending the constitution is one of our aims. Because according to the national ceasefire agreement, one of the last steps would be to adopt a federal constitution.
Q: If you look at the history of this country, that has been going on since independence?
A: Fergal, you were in South Africa, and you did manage to end apartheid there didn’t you, not you, but the South Africans.
Q: Are we talking months or years?
A: We hope that it will not be more than a few years, that’s what we’re aiming at.
Q: Can I come to the issue which has caused most international concern and which has led to a real turn about in the way you are perceived internationally and you are aware of this. You have seen the newspaper headlines. The comments from international figures condemning how you have handled the issue of the Rohingya muslims ?
A: What exactly is it that they are condemning?
Q: They want you to let a UN fact finding mission into Rakhine State?
A: But that is just now, that is what they asked for last month. What have they been condemning over the last year?
Q: Many many people, including those who would be sympathetic to you look at the situation and say why have you not spoken out ? Here is an icon of human rights?
A: What do you mean by speaking out, Fergal, this question has been asked since 2013, when the last round of troubles broke out in Rakhine. And they would ask me questions and I would answer them and people would say I said nothing. Simply because I did not make the statements people wanted, which people wanted me to make, simply to condemn one community or the other.
Q: Well let me quote to you what your fellow Nobel laureates have said, despite repeated appeals to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi we are frustrated that she has not taken any initiative to ensure full and equal citizen rights to the Rohingya. Daw Suu Kyi is the leader with the prime responsibility to lead with courage, humanity and compassion. Basically they are saying you have failed the test of humanity?
A: Well that is their perception, but have they considered the fact that one of the first thing we did after we took over the administration was to go through the national verification process to give citizenship to all those who were entitled to it. And we started doing this and engaging in other developments activities to try to bring about stability and harmony. A lot of the problems in the Rakhine State are due to the fact that resources are limited and both communities are anxious about how their lives are going to pan out.
In October there were these totally unexpected attacks on police outposts for no reason we could think of … because we had started the citizenship verification process, the process of bringing people back from the IDP camps, and resettle them, but the whole thing went awry because these attacks took place. We had no idea why these attacks took place. But a lot of people prefer to ignore the fact that these had happened at all. Why?
Q: I have been there, on the ground, on a number of occasions, and interviewed people, and I would say I am someone who recognises ethnic hatred and not ethnic cleansing when I see it, after Rwanda and The Balkans. Maybe the attacks took place because … there is a rising sense of frustration and that has fed into the hands of the militants?
A: But as far as we could make out, at that time, things were calm because people were waiting to see how are development plans would work and our nationality verification plan. I just wonder if these attacks were calculated to put a stop to this process.
Q: Wouldn’t the wisest thing to do to clear up all of this, would be to allow an international fact finding mission there? To allow international agencies in?
A: Well we invited Dr. Annan and the commission to look into Rakhine before anything happened.
Well this happened not because the UN asked for this, or any other body said we should have a fact finding mission, we invited Dr. Kofi Annan to form this commission and look into the problems in the Rakhine and help us to find long term solutions. We would very much like him to come back to see how we are getting on with the implementation of his recommendations.
Q: Would you be happy, would you appeal to those tens of thousands who have fled the country into refugee camps in Bangladesh to come back ? And would you tell them that they would be safe if they do?
A: If they come back they will be safe. It is up for them to decide, some have come back. And we have tried to find out why they fled. We have asked them why they fled and they said it is because of the fighting in their area. They did not want to come if there was still fighting.
Q: And you will welcome them back?
A: We welcome them. It is not a matter, we will welcome them back. They have been coming back. And those who have come back have been welcomed.
Q: Do you ever worry that you will be remembered as the champion of human rights, the Nobel laureate who failed to stand up to ethnic cleansing in her own country?
A: No, because I don’t think there is ethnic cleansing going on. I think ethnic cleansing is too strong an expression to use for what is happening.
Q: It is what I think I saw there, I have to say.
A: Fergal I think there is a lot of hostility there, and as I pointed out just now, it is Muslims killing Muslims, as well if they think they are collaborating with authorities. It is not just a matter of ethnic cleansing. It is a matter of people on different sides of a divide, and this divide we are trying to close up. As best as possible and not to widen it further.
Q: Do you think people in the west misjudged you or mischaracterised you or misunderstood you. Expecting you to be this sort of amalgam of Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa, for example, and actually maybe your closer in your determination and steeliness to someone like Margaret Thatcher?
Well No. I am just a politician. I am not quite like Margaret Thatcher, no. But on the other hand I am no Mother Teresa, either. I have never said that I was. Mahatma Gandhi was a very astute politician.
Q: He did put his own life at risk and ultimately tragically his life to protect his own minority Muslim population, was that an example you would not be tempted to follow?
A: I don’t think putting one’s life at risk is a particular example that I would like to follow. I would like to think we could live up to his high principles.
Q: One last question. What would stop you now going to Rakhine State and talking to all communities and appealing for peace? On the ground yourself?
A: Because I want to give those who are working on the Rakhine a chance to show that they are capable of it. I think there’s not enough confidence in what our people are capable of doing.
Q: Do you worry that people who do not want you to change the constitution, who are embedded in the military, embedded in intelligence, are going to target you and the people round you?
A: Well it is not something I think about, because we were asked the same set of questions over the last 30 years since I started working for the NLD. I’m not concerned about an assassination, and all kinds of other dangers coming from the powers that be and from those who are in a position to engage in these activities. But it is not something you think about on a day to day basis, it’s just part of your job.