Exclusive Interview: Aung San Suu Kyi

Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi has rebuffed international calls to have her Nobel Peace Prize revoked over her failure to stop human rights abuses on the Rohingya minority. NHK spoke to her in an exclusive interview in Tokyo on October 6th.

Japan-Mekong relations

What is your impression after visiting Japan for the first time in almost 2 years?

Well, I can’t say that Japan has changed very much in 2 years, so at least I have to see enough of it just to say whether or not it has changed. I would’ve not thought it has changed substantially, because Japan has been steady in its course of progress over the past few decades.

What result do you expect from this visit to Japan?

It’s all about the Japan-Mekong relations, and of course it’s about the Japan-Myanmar relations which have always been good. And we always think that the more we engage each other, the better we learn and understand each other and strengthen the friendships between our countries.

Do you expect more investment from the Japanese private sector?

I don’t think “expect” is a quite word because I think there will be more investment, because we are providing the kind of investment environment that will be more attractive to Japanese investors. So, let’s hope it’s just more than a hope.

And you will also visit a Japanese village in Fukushima. I believe you expect to learn something from what you see in the village.

Well, we want… I chose to go to a village rather than to a city, because… so, when I was in Japan a few years ago, I did get to see a number of Japanese cities, but I was never able to study the village life in Japan as such. And it should be… it will be very, very valuable for us to see what development has meant to villagers and to the agricultural sector. As you know, Myanmar is a predominately agricultural country. And the development means opportunities as well as challenges and problems, for example, depopulation of villages. This is something we have to think about in advance. If you leave it until a problem is right in front of you, it’s difficult to resolve.

From Monday, you will participate in the Mekong-Japan summit. How do you evaluate the importance of the Japanese presence in the region, or even in Myanmar?

In Myanmar, we’ve always had Japanese presence going back to… the beginning our independence. And it’s always been good. We’ve always been able to engage in a particularly friendly way. I think there is special chemistry between Japanese people and Burmese people. And we are confident that so we maintain over the years and now that we are engaging with Japan not just on a bilateral basis but also on a regional and multinational basis. I think this would… this would give greater… this will provide more facets to our relationship, which I think would make it more complete.

The influence of China

On the other hand, when we look at the Mekong region, China is a big influential stakeholder. It plans to push the Belt and Road Initiative forward and Myanmar is geographically very important to the realization of the initiative. For example, in Kyauk Phyu of Rakhine state, there are projects for a special economic zone and deep-sea port and an oil and gas pipeline. Do you believe Myanmar will reap benefits from the Belt and Road Initiative?

The understanding between China and Myanmar is that the Belt and Road Initiative should be mutually beneficial, and I think that is how countries should work together. We have to preplan our cooperation in such a way that it’s mutually beneficial. As you said, we are geographically in a very important position with regards to the Belt and Road and I think we’re also in a position to strengthen regional friendship. We think that strengthening friendship with one country should also help us to strengthen friendship with other countries. Because in the end, there is just only one world. We cannot move away to another world, we all live together in this world, and I think our friendship should be multi-facetted, flexible, and all-embracing.

There are also concerns that the scale of the project is too big for Myanmar compared to the expected benefits, and Myanmar might be caught in a deathtrap like other countries in the region. Do you have the same concern?

As I mentioned earlier, friendships and relationships have to be flexible, and we have to always keep in mind that the lasting relations are the ones that are mutually beneficial. And I think we understand each other on that and the flexibility will enable us to make sure that whatever we undertake is within our capacity to implement successfully.

Rohingya issue

Let's move on to the issue in Rakhine state concerning Rohingya people because it is also important for Japan-Myanmar relations. Myanmar is under pressure regarding allegations of human rights abuse in the Rakhine state, and the UN fact-finding mission concluded that some of the Myanmar generals should be sued for genocide in accordance with international law. And the international criminal court ruled that it has jurisdiction over the deportation of Rohingya people. How do you respond to these voices from the international community?

Every country that is a member of the UN has to play 2 rules. One is that as a member of the international community and other is that as a sovereign independent nation, which is responsible to its people. And we all have to try to strike a balance between these 2 rules. We believe entirely in human rights but we believe that in the long run the human rights can only be upheld by rule of law and by national reconciliation, particularly in our country, which is just made up of everybody of over 130 different ethnic groups and we just have to cope with the long-running civil war ever since independence. So in a country like ours, rule of law and the justice are something that must be accepted by everybody. We have to reconcile the views of our people with the views of the international community but always based on solid principles of justice.

With regard to the ICC, as you know that one of its members himself questioned whether or not ICC decision was the right one. Now from our point of view, we have made official reasons why we do not cheer the decision of ICC and I think you already know about it, so I am not going into the detail. But in addition to that, we have to be aware of the fact that recently an international commission of inquiry has been appointed, which comprises amongst others very experienced Japanese diplomat who served in the UN in very high capacity. So I think we have to give time and space for the commission of inquiry to do its work, and not start by deciding they cannot do the work properly simply because they are not the FFC, FFE. FFC, I get the initial mixed up. (sic)

Myanmar has its own initiative to set up an independent committee to investigate what happened in Rakhine state, and one of the members is a former Japanese diplomat. Will they carry out a fair, impartial, transparent investigation for sure? Can you guarantee it?

Well, their careers are open to all of you to investigate, to study, to find out what the track record has been, and whether or not they are the people to be trusted. We respect them highly. We consider them as individuals who are not just highly thought of, but who have had experience in particularly the matters of human rights, international investigations, and so on. So we chose them because we thought that they were supremely qualified for the responsibility, and also because they had the courage and toughness to take on such a difficult mission.

On the other hand, the international community is calling for the investigation to be carried out by an international body such as the United Nations. Do you believe such an investigation will not lead to a solution?

What is the difference between an international body appointed by the United Nations and by the COE as it has been appointed now? Because as I mentioned earlier, we very carefully chose the international representatives, the people with experience in the matters that they are dealing and people’s integrity. I don’t think the integrity of either Ambassador Manalo or Ambassador Oshima has ever been questioned by anybody nor their experience and efficiency. So, I think it would…we have also to look at from the point of view of those people in our country who have concerns with regard to how our impartial commission might be and they have to feel that it is actually a commission that will give both sides a fair hearing.

May I ask why Myanmar chose a national initiative rather than an international initiative? In the international community, there is major criticism that Myanmar is avoiding an international investigation, such as a fact-finding mission by the United Nations.

Well actually, it’s an internationally-accepted United Nations’ principle that in such matters if the country is willing and able, it’s up to the country to try to resolve its own problems. And I think it’s exactly what we are trying to do. But we have to be given the chance to prove that we are willing and able. If the perception from the very beginning is that a particular member of the United Nations is not willing and able without giving them a chance to prove whether or not they are, then it is not quite in line with the principle on which the United Nations was founded.

Earlier, you also said that the investigation should be understood by everybody in Myanmar. So may I assume that an investigation by an international body such as the United Nations will not be understood by the Myanmar citizens?

Well, actually, some… there are some elements in Myanmar who are even not happy with the commission of inquiry that we have appointed, because those who take more rigid positions and who think that it is entirely a national affair. But, as I said earlier, we accept that we are both an international entity as a member of the United Nations and a sovereign independent nation, and we have to balance the responsibilities of both. People are free to express their opinions in Myanmar. And there are many who criticize the COE because they do not think this is necessary.

Last month, you said that the situation could have been handled better, in your speech at the forum in Hanoi. Could you elaborate on how things could have been better?

Actually, I’m a bit surprised by this quote, because I do not know to what it is referring. I didn’t at any time see that the situation could not have been, could have been handled better. And I don’t quite understand the reference.

Japan's stance on the Rohingya issue

May I move on to Japan-Myanmar relations? Despite growing international criticism, Japan is insisting that it will support the national autonomous efforts of Myanmar. How do you evaluate this policy?

I think it’s a very sensible position, because in the end, we have to do our own work, however much the world could be criticized, when it comes to the real implementation of difficult problem and difficult programs, we’ll have to do it ourselves. And what Japan is doing is helping us to be willing and able, as I mentioned earlier, which are the 2 basic necessities.

Since Japan adopted that policy, it has been facing criticism like, ‘Japan is taking the wrong side’ or ‘Japan is keeping silent on human rights abuses.’ Why do you think Japan adopted this policy?

In the first place, I think we should not be looking at things as the wrong side and right side but as different sides, and reconciling differences should be the main aim of those who truly want to bring about peace and harmony in the world. And I see Japan as trying to reconcile differences, which is the best way to ensure the stability and harmony in the globe today.

What kind of further support do you expect from Japan to improve both domestic and international tension regarding the Rakhine issue?

Japan has been very helpful and we’re not going to be greedy and say we want more and more and more. We very much appreciate that understanding that they gave us in the first place, it’s the understanding that’s more important than actual help. Help that is meaningful comes from a true understanding of the situation.

Arrest of Reuters reporters

After 2 Reuters reporters were sentenced 7 years in prison, international concern has been growing over the freedom of expression in Myanmar. The Official Secrets Act can be traced back to the colonial era, and there are calls for the reformation of the legal system of Myanmar to make it suitable for a democratic country. Do you agree with that opinion and are you willing to proceed with legal transformation?

Well, I don’t quite know exactly what you mean by legal transformation. There is due process, which is the path the justice takes. And what we have to be concerned about that there should be no miscarriage of justice. And I’ve said that if there have been allegation that there has been miscarriage of justice we are very perfectly willing to look into it. But miscarriage of justice and laws that may not or may not be acceptable to some people are not the same. Miscarriage of justice means that you have not acted in accordance with due process and in accordance with present laws. And I think we should try to keep apart the matter of freedom of expression from the matter of rule of law and due process.

With regard to the freedom of expression, I would like to suggest to those who are concerned about the situation in Burma to study, just to study 24 hours of output of social media and conventional media in Myanmar and you will be surprised at the sort of things that you will find. They express themselves very freely and very widely on everything from the government to what’s happening next door to them in their street.

Do you believe the people of Myanmar already enjoy the freedom of expression?

This is what I say. It’s not for me to say, please get NHK to study just 24 hours output of the media in Myanmar, the social media as well as conventional media. And then you’ll have the good idea of whether or not there is freedom of expression.

Regarding the case of the Reuters reporters, the world says that this is a matter of freedom of expression. But I’m aware that you said this is not a matter of freedom of expression, but a decision of the court. Why do you think this gap in understanding is occurring?

I think as a member of the media, you would probably know the answer better than I do. But I think we have to look at the situation to see whether it is actually a matter of freedom of expression or it’s the matter of due process. Because under the due process, they have every right to question the verdict of the court and they can appeal it and appeal it not just once, they can go to 3 stages of appeal right up to the highest court on the land, if they feel that they have not given justice.

The due process is carried out according to law -- Myanmar laws -- and in this case, the law is the Official Secrets Act.

No. The due process is a little bit different from the law. The law, the Official Secrets Act is one of the laws. The due process is more to do with how a case is tried in the courts. As I understand it, the members of the diplomatic corps and the members of the media have been present at every hearing of the case. And if in any of the hearings there has been miscarriage of justice, we will be very happy to address that, the problem at concern. But it has to be presented to us.

A modern democratic country should be ruled by law. Sometimes, we have to think about whether a law is suitable for a democratic country. In this instance, the law is the Official Secret Act and it comes from the colonial era. What are your thoughts on whether this law is suitable for the recent situation in Myanmar?

It has never been said unsuitable up to now. And I think if it is a matter, if you are studying the Official Secrets Acts, I think many, many countries in the world including democratic countries have official secrets acts. And perhaps it will be more useful for those who are interested in to compare and contrast what we have in Myanmar now with the official secrets acts in other countries. We also have to study that. You just don’t decide just because there has not been enough publicity of a certain issue that laws have to be changed. What, when we look at a law to see whether or not it’s relevant to our times, we also have to study similar laws in other countries. And, of course, it’s not a matter of when a law was promulgated rather than which decides whether or not it’s still relevant, because in many of the developed countries some laws go back much further than the 18th, 19th century, which is when some of the colonial laws were established.

Before moving to the next question, may I ask about your ideas or your views on the state of press freedom in Myanmar?

Well, I think there is a lot of press freedom in Myanmar. I have to go back to what I said. Don’t ask me, study what the press is doing from day to day in the country, the local press not the international press, because the international press, of course, is governed not by our laws but the laws of their, their own country. But if you study what our… not just the conventional media but also the social media, because it’s a very active sector, then you will see whether or not there is freedom of information, which I think these… we just can’t talk about the freedom of the press because of the social media.

International criticism

Regarding Myanmar’s democracy and regarding the situation of human rights in Myanmar, there is international criticism which is growing more and more, not just against the military, but actually against you, claiming you have not made use of your influence, power, or moral authority to stop the violence or the human rights abuses. There are even calls for the withdrawal of the Nobel Prize given to you about 30 years ago. Canada already decided to revoke honorary citizenship. What's your response to this situation?

I don’t quite exactly know what it means by saying I have not used my moral authority to stop violence. We have never promoted violence in any way and we have never refrained from putting a stop to illegal and violent activities. So I’m not quite sure what they are saying. If what they are saying is that we have not been able to change the constitution overnight to make turn it into a truly democratic one, we’ve never claimed we would be, changing it overnight. We said that we would, going for evolution that we will do it step by step in a way as not to hurt the national reconciliation. With regard to honors and prizes and so on, it’s very much up to those who offer them to decide what they do with it. It’s not for us to say we want it or don't want it.

Do you believe that those who are criticizing you and those who are taking those kinds of actions understand the realities of the situation in Myanmar?

Well, I think a very few. There are many people who do not even realize what the situation in the Rakhine state alone is like. Let, let alone in the whole of Myanmar. But in these, these days, it’s always quick fixes and instant gratification. Everything has to be done immediately and quickly. But we can’t afford to do that, because we have to cope with the consequences in a long run. Or one quick fix and one short-sighted solution may lead to a whole spill of consequences that is still on us for decades.

Do you believe it is important to deepen mutual understanding between Myanmar and the international community?

Well, we have tried to explain our situation as much as we can, but people have to be prepared to listen as well.

Is there anything you could do to deepen mutual understanding?

We are doing the best possible. We have explained up the situation repeatedly to the international community and we have always invited those who are interested, truly interested in promoting harmony and peace in Rakhine to come and look at the situation and to make the suggestions. And after all, the commission of inquiry is headed by internationals, not by nationals, but thus, the moment we appointed just because it’s appointed by Myanmar government, then it is assumed that this commission of inquiry is not acceptable. Instead of what they should be doing is looking at the credentials of those who have been appointed rather than of those who have appointed them.

How do you feel about the withdrawal of the honors and reputation that were given in the past, when you're still concerned with Myanmar, and when you see what's really happening there?

I still see the real situation of Myanmar. Everything that we did as a party is based on the real situation in Myanmar and I think if our people understand that, that is what we have to stand by.

Do you care about the prizes and honorary citizenship?

I don’t care about prizes and honors as such. I’m sorry that friends are not as steadfast as they might be. Because I think friendship means understanding, basically, to try to understand rather than to just make your own judgment, but prizes come and prizes go.

Do you still hope that Myanmar could cooperate with international community?

We are cooperating with the international community. We have not been not cooperating. The fact that we are not doing everything they want us to do does not mean that we are not cooperating.

How do you evaluate the importance of cooperating with the international community?

Cooperation is a 2-way business as we can’t just cooperate one way. We do put a lot of importance on cooperation but it does have to be a 2-way business.

I remember that last time, you told me you thought that cooperation should be bilateral.

How can cooperation be unilateral?

I would like to ask you about your own, and Myanmar’s initiative, to enhance Myanmar's cooperation.

We have been doing a lot. We are doing it at present, and we will continue to discharge our responsibilities as a member of the international community.

A look back at achievements

Last month marked the halfway point of your 5-year term. Could you please describe your achievements during the first 2.5 years? What have you achieved in terms of democracy and development of the country?

Of course, the closest talk about a short term but these things have to be judged in a longer term. What has achieved in 2 years is, may not be lasting. On the other hand, it may have a bigger impact than you imagined at the time. In the first place, of course, we have been able to do a lot about the corruption, which is very important. There are some who say that while the members, the top members of the government are free from corruption, they are still corruption, gray ones on lower levels, which is probably true.

But I think you have heard quite recently that actions were taken under, under the corruption law against the attorney general of the Rangoon division. The Rangoon region is the most important region in the country and for action to be taken against its top legal officer shows that we are going ahead, because we could give small examples, but it is a big and noticeable one. And together with him, of course, the lawyers and police who were involved have also been, have had action taken against them.

So, this is a big move forward. And we, we are concentrating on moving the economy forward, as well, as you know, our Myanmar investment commission is under the new leadership, and we are concentrating on making Myanmar a more investment friendly country where the ease of business is much greater than our present is.

So, from the social and… social point of view, health and education we have much to be… to be happy about, because the indicators of both health and education, education elements are improving in many directions. And this is the most important. But what I find personally most encouraging of all is the way in which the young people have become very dynamic because certainly they find themselves in a more open atmosphere where they can learn and where they can improve themselves, and where they can contribute to the development of the society, in spite of the fact that we cannot put as much as we like in education.

Our children are very bright and when given the opportunity, they are able to compete with anybody from anywhere else in the world.

So, in 2 years it’s not bad. It’s not… that I would think is something that we could look back as a lasting achievement that in 2 years we’ve managed to move forward our health care and our education sector to such a position that we are laying the foundation for stability and security for our coming generations. That, for me, is the most important.

But of course, there are the other things you can look at. For example, there are… a fight against drugs, and such matters. And what we… the foundation that we are laying for the future, that I see personally as the most important achievement.

When I was in Yangon, I could see that things are much better than before, even compared to a few years ago. What about political reform? What have you achieved?

Political reform… I don’t quite know what mean by the political reform. If you mean in the sense of changing the constitution, no, we have not been able to change the constitution yet, as you know. But if the political reform also means the political culture, I think the political culture takes time to change, but it is changing, because people are freer to engage in the kind of politics which they want to engage in. And they are gaining a greater capacity for being part of the political… how shall I put it, that the political setup of the country that they are not part of the government, that they have to take the responsibilities, at the same time, as they demand their rights.

Political mindset of the people, you mean?

The Burmese have always been inclined to be rather politically minded, but I think now they are also finding out that being politically minded doesn’t just mean demanding rights. It also means accepting certain responsibilities.

How possible is it to achieve amendment of the constitution?

I always believe if this is the will of the people it will prevail. And it is in that belief that we worked over 30 years to achieve a democratic transition. We never engaged in violent activities, we didn’t even organize one single public demonstration. We did it steadily within the framework of the law, and it has been surely a result as you can see. And we hope that we can consolidate this result and take it forward.

What is your ambition for the latter half of your term?

I don’t know if the ambition is the word. We have a program of course. We have programs that are related to the economic sector as well as programs related to the social and political sector. If you have to put what our plans of the economic sector did nurture, obviously we want to strengthen our infrastructure and expand the investment activities. And if we look at the social sector, as I said earlier we are most concerned about is health and education, because health and education have both immediate and long-term results. We find that the young people are very quick to learn.

Some of the progress they made can be seen in the present day. We don’t have to just wait for the future. And of course, health. And in the political sector, I’ll ...the most important undertaking, which is of our government, is peace process. And we haven’t talked about that, but that is extremely important and we have proceeding. As we you know, we had 3 Panglong meetings, and in spite of the difficulties, there has been progress in each and every meeting. Many were worried that it would be too difficult to forge ahead, but in spite of the difficulties we can say that each meeting has been able to report success and progress, and we’ll be carrying that forward. And of course, there will be remembrance of the constitution.

So far, do you believe you have taken enough steps to achieve your goals -- political, social, and perhaps cultural reformation of Myanmar?

I don’t think one should ever think that one has taken enough steps. Because complacency means that you are not going to make any more effort. So we always think there is more that we can do.

According to your own criteria, how do you evaluate your achievements so far?

Exactly like that. There is more that we can do.

Expectations for Japan

Finally, can I ask you what kind of support you expect from Japan, not just in terms of Rakhine but also on a broader scale?

I think I said earlier that we have already having a lot of help and support from Japan, and to say we want more would seem very greedy. And I think what we would like is to consolidate the understanding and friendship between the 2 countries, and while of course at the moment we are the ones who are receiving rather than giving, we always think there will be a time when we can be the givers as well in a friendly relationship.

How do you expect Japanese people to see the country of Myanmar, while..

You can just come. They don’t need a visa. And we now have a visa-free agreement. So they just come and look at Myanmar instead of just listening to us talking to one another or to the reports from other places rather than the country itself.

Because there are many reports on Rakhine and on the Rohingya people, citizens, private companies, or government officials may have a negative impression of Myanmar.

Well, they must come and see for themselves. It’s no use sitting here and having negative impressions when it is so easy for you to just hop over and look at the situation.

Do you have any message for the Japanese people and the people around the world regarding what you would like them to understand about Myanmar?

I think you’ll understand if you want to understand. You have to begin by wanting to understand the situation. And that means you are open to learning more about the situation. If you think you already know everything and you have nothing more to learn, then of course you cannot expand your understanding of any given situation.

You expect people around the world to understand and see the reality of Myanmar?

To want to understand, as I said. To understand, you have to want to understand, meaning to say that you are prepared to accept that there may be other explanations rather than the one that you are given.