Exclusive: Interview with Aung San Suu Kyi

Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi sat down for her first one-on-one interview with NHK in 5 years. In the interview, Aung San Suu Kyi told NHK World correspondent Orie Sugimoto that deep-rooted anti-Rohingya sentiment cannot be resolved overnight.

Sugimoto: The Myanmar government has agreed to have UN Agencies assist with the repatriation process of the so-called Rohingya people in Rakhine State, and to set up an independent committee to investigate human rights violations. These actions have been long required by the refugees themselves and international communities as well. Why did Myanmar take these actions at this time at this point?

Aung San Suu Kyi: I don’t think it’s quite this time at this point. It’s a process. Perhaps, people are unaware of the fact that we have been negotiating with UN Agencies, as sure kind of MoU we can agree to and this goes back to quite some time ago to the recommendations of Dr. Kofi Annan’s commission. And, of course, with the regard to the national latest investigation team, this is something that was advised by our advisory board. And we take very seriously that advice because after all, we appointed them because we believe they will be able to give us a valuable perception of the situation.

Sugimoto: As we cannot see that, may I ask you why it took such a long time for Myanmar to come out with these actions? What’s the difficulty in taking these actions?

Aung San Suu Kyi: Well, I don’t think you can say that it took us a long time because if you remember the advisory board made their recommendations just a few months back. So, I don’t think you can say we have taken a long time over the national investigation team. With regard to the UNDP and the UNHCR MoU, we’ve been negotiating and to negotiate and come to an agreement on MoU, we need to look into all the implications, both sides. There are some things that we agreed to immediately and there are some things over which we had to trash out a few obstacles. So, if we want to have a MoU that is meaningful and also at the same time, truly implementable, I think it’s worthwhile to take a bit of time.

Sugimoto: What was the difficult point for Myanmar to comply with?

Aung San Suu Kyi: I don’t think there was one difficult point as such either for us or UN Agencies. I think it was a question of many points. But none of them really is inseparable, which is why we’ve come to an agreement now.

Sugimoto: Myanmar has been criticized for alleged violence against so-called Rohingya Muslims. I also heard the Myanmar government saying that this issue is very complicated, complex, sometimes it’s not right for the international community to intervene in this issue. Could you explain why this issue is so complicated and difficult for Myanmar, and why sometimes it’s not right for the international community to intervene in this issue?

Aung San Suu Kyi: First of all, of course, it’s a long standing issue. People forget that it goes back a couple of centuries. It’s not something that happened yesterday. You cannot resolve a problem that has been existing for such a long time in a few months. And our government took over the responsibility of that administration just 2 years ago. And you cannot resolve a problem like that overnight. And very few people outside of Myanmar and even very few people in Myanmar are aware of all the historical issues that are involved. So, it’s not just for the world outside. It’s also for our people inside the country to understand what’s going on and why we take the steps that we take. It’s most important that our people should understand. Because we are the one who must in the long run preserve the stability and security of our country.

Sugimoto: Is it too risky for Myanmar not to wait for or not to take enough time to explain to the people of Myanmar and to explain the international community how complex this issue is?

Aung San Suu Kyi: I think it’s risky for anybody to go head long into a problem without considering all the various aspects involved.

Sugimoto: Can you please explain what the risk for Myanmar is in doing things more quickly?

Aung San Suu Kyi: You cannot hurry over everything. The things that require time have to be given time. You cannot force issues. You cannot say to people, for example, “Now forget about the problem and start a new page.” You can’t just order them. You have to create a situation which will enable them to understand why they have to find different ways of resolving all the problems.

Sugimoto: Can you talk more about the independent committee to investigate the human rights violation in Rakhine State such as the members of the committee? Are you sure that it will be reliable and independent and will explain to the international community that the Myanmar government is trying to follow the rule of law?

Aung San Suu Kyi: We cannot at the moment tell you exactly who is going to be in the commission. But we will only appoint people in whose integrity and whose ability we have full confidence.

Sugimoto: Do you believe that having an investigation committee which is independent will improve the situation and gain the understanding of the international community as well?

Aung San Suu Kyi: The advisory board believes that this is something that should be done. And as for the full confidence, and in the goodwill as well as the wisdom of the advisory board, we think that this will be a positive move that will help the situation.

Sugimoto: Why did you choose this national initiative, rather than an international initiative such as the UN fact-finding mission?

Aung San Suu Kyi: We’ve explained repeatedly why we cannot accept the UN fact-finding mission with regard to this initiative as I’ve been explaining earlier. This is something that is recommended by the advisory board and they have been in the situation to study what’s happening in Rakhine. And since they recommended it very seriously, we take it very seriously as well.

Sugimoto: In Cox Bazaar, many refugees are hesitating to return to Myanmar because they are afraid of facing violence if they come back to Myanmar. This fact is making it even more difficult to start voluntary repatriation. So, how will Myanmar restore trust with the refugees and also with the international community?

Aung San Suu Kyi: Trust is a 2-way business. I don’t think it’s just up to just Myanmar to establish trust. I think the other side also has to take necessary steps in order to establish trust. For example, we understand that the forms that are required to fill in in accordance with the MoU agreed between Myanmar and Bangladesh have not been distributed widely to the refugees. Unless these forms been distributed and unless the refugees know that there’s a legal and safe way for them to return to Rakhine. Then we will not be able to make quick progress. So I think, it’s a 2-way process. MoU is agreed to by 2 or more parties, and it’s competent on all parties involved to implement their responsibilities.

Sugimoto: I understand that all parties have a lot of work to do to restore and establish mutual trust. For the Myanmar side, what can you do?

Aung San Suu Kyi: We have carried out all our responsibilities in line with the MoU. If you study the MoU, if you look at what we’ve been doing, I think you’ll find that we have carried out all our responsibilities. But trust is not something that you can create just by signing a piece of paper and it’s the people who have to take a risk on whether or not the situation is trustworthy. If you’re not prepared to try out a situation, you can never tell for sure whether it’s acceptable or not.

Sugimoto: I understand that Myanmar has taken all possible actions to restore the trust. But from now on, what kind of actions do you plan to take?

Aung San Suu Kyi: Trust is not something that you establish within a limited amount of time. You cannot say, well, trust has been established to Degree A, and now. And the next 4 months we go to Degree B. It doesn’t work like that. It’s an ongoing process. And as I said, everybody concerned must be positive and committed to the process of reestablishing trust.

Sugimoto: Recent actions by the Myanmar government like the agreement with the UN, establishment of the independent committee to restore mutual trust and with other parties… can we understand it in that way?

Aung San Suu Kyi: Are you saying that did we undertake to sign the MoU with the UNDP and UNHCR and to form the investigation team in order to create trust?

Sugimoto: I don’t mean to say it's the only purpose. But is it in line with Myanmar…?

Aung San Suu Kyi: I think I’ve explained several times now that it’s in line with the recommendations that were made by Dr. Kofi Annan’s commission and by our advisory board. The commission and the board both were formed at our initiative and obviously, we put people whose wisdom and goodwill we believe, so their recommendations have to be taken very seriously indeed.

Sugimoto: I know it’s very difficult for you to clarify but can I ask when do you expect the actual return of the refugees will start?

Aung San Suu Kyi: That depends much on us as but also on Bangladesh. It’s a 2-way business. Until the refugees have been given the forms, until they’ve been informed fully of all the steps they need to take to come back to Rakhine, we will not be able to carry forward the process very quickly. As you know, some have come back but not through the official channels. And the ones who came back, said that they were not aware of the need to fill in forms and to follow a certain procedure.

Sugimoto: Inside Myanmar, among many Myanmar citizens, there is deep rooted discrimination or hatred against so-called Rohingya people or Rohingya Muslims or sometimes Bengali. As a leader of this country, and as a leader of democracy do you have messages for those people of this country?

Aung San Suu Kyi: We have been working on it ever since our government took over the administration. One of the first things we did after we came into the administration on the 1st of April was to form a committee for the rule of law and development in Rakhine. Because we realized that the animosity, the distrust and if you like, the fear and hate in Rakhine were rooted in the fact that it’s a region where there’s very little prosperity and very little security. Which is why we formed the committee for the rule of law and development. Since then, we were looking to the long term solution of the Rakhine problem, if you like. We’d like to see it as a challenge, rather than a problem. So as I said, it’s ongoing. You cannot wipe out what has happened in history for more than a century within a few months, not even within a few years. It is something that you have to work on consistently. If you look at other countries, you’ll find that, often, even long standing democracies have problems. Making sure that all the different communities are at peace, and I have learned to trust and like each other.

Sugimoto: Just recently, Japan Ambassador Mr. Maruyama was invited to Maungdaw and Sittwe to observe the situation. How do you evaluate the role of Japan in this issue?

Aung San Suu Kyi: Japan has been very positive and practical in its contribution of aid and assistance to the resolution of the situation in Rakhine. We appreciate it very much. It’s also our policy to make sure that those countries that are providing aid and assistance in that part of our country can go there frequently to see how we are carrying out the projects of which we agreed.

Sugimoto: Do you feel that the Japanese stance is a bit different from other countries?

Aung San Suu Kyi: Each country's stance is different. Of course, some countries tend to stick together and some countries act individually. But I think, basically, there are no 2 countries which have taken exactly the same stand. There are always nuances.

Sugimoto: What do you believe is the specialty of the Myanmar-Japan relationship?

Aung San Suu Kyi: I would not like to put it as a specialty on Japan-Myanmar relations. Because then, it will imply that we don’t have good relations with other countries. But, I think we can say that we have always valued the deep friendship between Japan and Myanmar, which is based on the friendship and understanding between our peoples. I always say that it all comes down to that. There’s nothing that can replace friendship and understanding between people. Government comes and government goes. People go on forever. I think part of our special relationship as you call it with Japan is very much rooted in the fact that there’s a deep friendship between our people.

Sugimoto: Moving on to the democracy and development of Myanmar. Two years after the establishment of the new government, can you please describe achievements in percentages and numbers?

Aung San Suu Kyi: Absolutely impossible to explain in percentage and number. Actually, I’ve never thought of it that way. I have to go back to the work “process.” The development of a country is a process. It never comes to an end. And even the very-well developed democracies have challenges that they have to overcome time and again. And new challenges arrive as the world changes. So, we cannot fix the kind of ideal, you said, for democracy. It has to change all the time. But, basically for us, we think that the most important thing is for our people to be aware of their part of the responsibility for establishing democracy in the country. It’s not just the responsibility of the government. I think in fact, that’s the contradiction. If you want democracy, to say that the success of democracy is totally in the hands of government is totally oxymoronic because democracy is people-based. People have to be very much part of the process. And I can hardly calculate how many of the people considered themselves as part of the process and to what extent. But if we go back to the election of 2015, you will remember that a good proportion of our electorates went to the poll. Myanmar, as a country, has suffered from poor education and still suffers from poor education and poor communication including just ordinary roads. I think it’s a great achievement that a high percentage went to the poll to carry out their responsibilities as citizens of a democratic society. We are certainly not a wholly democratic country. If we look at the legislature you can see very clearly that we are only 75% democratic. Because only 75% of our representatives are elected by the people. But I don’t think that’s the percentage by which we can judge the degree to which we have democracy. I think our people are a lot less frightened than they used to be before the election. I think you’ll notice that there is much more open criticisms of their government and those connected to the government than they ever used to be in the past. That’s an indication of the fact that democratic freedom has progressed. But we all have to be aware of the fact that the freedom brings with it the responsibility. And we have yet to know for sure how much the responsible part of this process has increased.

Sugimoto: As you mentioned, democracy is people-based. Do you feel the mindset of the people has changed compared to 2 years ago?

Aung San Suu Kyi: I said earlier that they are less frightened. That means their mindset is changing and we make it a point of repeating again and again, reiterating the fact that they have responsibility as well. Our government uses the word "responsibility" a lot. And I think it’s important.

Sugimoto: As you mentioned, Myanmar is not fully democratic because you still have that influence of the military in politics as well. Is this fact making it more difficult to combat the challenging issues such as the Rakhine issue or reconciliation of ethnic minorities?

Aung San Suu Kyi: Let’s say that it is an added dimension to the challenges that we have to face. And that’s quite normal. Because as you said, and as I have explained, we are not a wholly democratic society yet because our constitution is not wholly democratic.

Sugimoto: We haven’t seen physical progress in the amendment of the constitution. Do you have any roadmap to achieve that goal of amendment of the constitution?

Aung San Suu Kyi: We do have a roadmap, which is not going to be made public. But, at the same time, I think you will understand that in 2014, when we had a debate in the legislature with regard to the amendment of the constitution, we made it quite clear we want to bring about the amendment through peaceful negotiation and within the framework of the law, because we want to establish sound and healthy principles for the democratic machinery in our country.

Sugimoto: Do you sometimes find difficulty in balancing the actual situation of Rakhine State or regarding national reconciliation and the power of the military? Are you finding such a dilemma?

Aung San Suu Kyi: I don’t quite know what you mean. Because I don’t think that is the strength of the military that has any direct effect on what’s happening in Rakhine. I know that, and I’m sure you know that according to the constitution, elected government cannot direct military operations. So of course, we do not have the kind of overall control that will be exercised by a wholly democratic government.

Sugimoto: Recently, 2 Reuters journalists were arrested when covering the Rakhine issue. Myanmar is criticized for limiting the freedom of speech and being undemocratic. The journalists were arrested when they are covering human rights issue in Rakhine state. How do you respond to these criticisms? Is democracy in Myanmar different from that in which the international community believes?

Aung San Suu Kyi: They weren’t arrested for covering the Rakhine issue. They were arrested because they broke the Official Secret Act. And I think you are aware of the fact that everybody has free access to the court proceedings. Now, all of this is in accordance with due process. I’m sure the NHK correspondent attends the court proceedings regularly. What is important is that we should be working in accordance with due process and rule of law. They were arrested because they broke the Official Secret Act. We cannot say now whether they were guilty or not. That will be up to judiciary. It is for the judiciary to decide. They were nor arrested for covering the Rakhine issue.

Sugimoto: They were not arrested for covering the issue. But, while they were covering the issue…

Aung San Suu Kyi: And other issues. I think if you’ve been following the court proceedings, you will understand that there were other issues involved in breaking of the Official Secret Act.

Sugimoto: Many parties from the international community are demanding that Myanmar free those 2 journalists immediately. How do you see those voices from international community?

Aung San Suu Kyi: As I said, we follow the due process and everybody is free to follow the court proceedings to find out whether or not they are fair, whether or not they are in accordance with the rule of law.

Sugimoto: Regarding Myanmar-Japan relations, what kind of role do you expect Japan to play for democratization and the development of Myanmar as a whole, and for economic relations?

Aung San Suu Kyi: We expect Japan to play the role of understanding and a longstanding friend.

Sugimoto: Many Japanese companies are really willing to come to Myanmar, and to join the Myanmar economy. But they are concerned about the infrastructure, especially the electricity. Can we expect a better environment for those companies?

Aung San Suu Kyi: They should study what we have done in the way of infrastructure over the last couple of years. I think they will see that we’ve made considerable progress. Mind you, over the last 2 years, we have concentrated more on political needs than our economic needs. Meaning to say, that we have given priority to the construction of roads and provision of electricity for regions for politically necessity rather than for reasons where it is economically profitable. But, we can now concentrate more on economically profitable areas because we can handle the first priority quite adequately so far.

Sugimoto: Do you believe the economic relations of Myanmar and Japan will contribute to the future of Myanmar?

Aung San Suu Kyi: I hope it will contribute to the future of Japan as well.

Sugimoto: But what about Myanmar?

Aung San Suu Kyi: Of course, it will contribute to the future of both countries, if it’s carried out in the right way. As I said, we should be fair. We have to look to each other’s needs and each other’s benefits. Not just our side.