Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi says it's good to be back in India after nearly 25 years. Speaking to Karan Thapar on Devil's Advocate, she said she was disappointed when India began engaging with the generals who had put her under house arrest, but added she held no hard feelings against India.
Below is the full transcript of the interview:
Karan Thapar: Hello and welcome to a special Devil's Advocate with the Burmese Opposition leader and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Aung San Suu Kyi, you returned to India – a country where you were at school, college, where your mother was a long-serving ambassador - after a gap of 25 years. What does this visit mean to you?
Aung San Suu Kyi: First of all it means meeting old friends again, people like you Karan but really it is just to get to know India again to feel myself closer to India and to the people of India.
Karan Thapar: Now, although in 1992 the Indian government gave you the Nehru Prize, shortly thereafter they changed policies, they didn't back or support either you or the National League for Democracy or even the movement for democracy in Burman. Did you or the Burmese people feel let down?
Aung San Suu Kyi: I think some felt let down. I was saddened by it. I don't think we have the right to feel let down because we don't have the right to anybody's support just because we believe in what we are doing. But since I felt particularly close to India, I was sad about it.
Karan Thapar: You often say that Mahatma Gandhi is one of your heroes. In fact, in an earlier interview to the BBC, you said that he was one of the greatest influences on your thinking. How do you think the Mahatma would have viewed his own government turning its back on you and forging alliances with the very Generals who put you in custody and put Burma under throne?
Aung San Suu Kyi: I think Mahatma Gandhi would have been very vocal about his disapproval.
Karan Thapar: He wouldn't have approved of what India did?
Aung San Suu Kyi: I don't think so. I think he would have stood by us and he would have insisted that India try to stand by us because this is the kind of man he was.
Karan Thapar: So, in a sense the Indian government's attitude to you, which changed so dramatically in the 90s, would have not just disappointed Mahatma Gandhi but would have betrayed the principles he stood for?
Aung San Suu Kyi: I think he may have felt that his principles have been betrayed but I don't think we can say that one person has betrayed another person's principles. After all we have to be pragmatic and I know that governments sometimes take a path which they think is best for their country, rather than best for others.
Karan Thapar: During those years when India, a country that you had studied in, perhaps looked upon as a second home, turned its back and wasn't supporting you, did you feel somewhat betrayed by associations and memories?
Aung San Suu Kyi: No, no. I never felt like that. I don't think we have the right to demand loyalty or support from anybody. We have to work for that loyalty and for that support. I never felt betrayed by India. As I said I felt saddened by it but that was all and it didn't play on my mind as we had many other things to think about. And there were many quarters from the globe we had to try to get support.
Karan Thapar: Is that breach with India now forgiven or is it something you have put aside?
Aung San Suu Kyi: It was not a matter in which I needed to forgive, who am I that I should forgive or not forgive India. After all, one must be grateful and appreciative of all support that one gets and as I said earlier, we have no right to expect it.
Karan Thapar: What about the sadness, is that over? Has this visit in a sense helped in healing that?
Aung San Suu Kyi: The sadness didn't last too long. I was saddened for a while, then I accepted that it is a part of life. It didn't in anyway mitigate my fondness for India and for the people of India.
Karan Thapar: So, that fondness remained despite the fact that…
Aung San Suu Kyi: Of course, because I have many Indian friends and I look upon India as a friend.
Karan Thapar: It was that friendship with individuals that sustained the relationship?
Aung San Suu Kyi: Not just that. It is not just friendship with individuals, it was also the links between the two countries historically and the belief I had that we had many shared values and these will set themselves at the right time.
Karan Thapar: Let's come to developments in Burma. Since the elections of 2010, the pace of change has surprised many people but is it irreversible or could things still go tragically wrong?
Aung San Suu Kyi: First of all, you were talking about the pace of change. I think people are concentrating too much on pace, rather than speed. They must make sure that there is a proper structure to the reform. And on whether it is irreversible or not. Of course, everything is reversible. After all, don't forget Burma was working towards democracy when the army coup in 1962 took place. So, I think it is too facile to say that something is reversible or irreversible. I think we have to work hard to make sure that things keep going in the right direction.
Karan Thapar: You said that one should concentrate on whether there is a proper structure to the reforms. Is there a proper structure?
Aung San Suu Kyi: I am not aware of it, if there is. I feel at the moment it is all very ad-hoc.
Karan Thapar: When you say ad-hoc do you mean to say it is happening the whims and caprices of the individuals who happen to be in power?
Aung San Suu Kyi: Not necessary whims and caprices but certainly I do not think there is a worked out structured, reform program. I think when they think something needs doing, they go and do it and I think there is too much emphasis on speed and not proper sequencing.
Karan Thapar: What are the sort of things that need to happen to ensure that Burma moves steadily and progressively towards a full democracy? The things that are not happening at the moment.
Aung San Suu Kyi: Well, what is very obvious is the constitution. If we were to move towards full democracy then that constitution will have to be amended to be in line with the democratic practices and values.
Karan Thapar: One of the most important elements in the constitution that needs amendment are the clauses that debar you from becoming president. How important is it for you that that bar must be removed?
Aung San Suu Kyi: It is important because no constitution should have been written with one person in mind and that's what I object to basically to about these provisions. You do not write a constitution for a country because you are against one particular person or because you are for one particular person. That is not the way you write the constitution of a country.
Karan Thapar: Elections are of course now about now a two-and-a-half years away, they happen in 2015. How confident are you that the amendments in the constitution, in particular this one that bars you from becoming president, will actually happen?
Aung San Suu Kyi: This is not of course the most important bit of the constitution that needs to be amended. There are other sections which prevent Burma from being a working democracy. So, I think all of these need to be amended if we want the 2015 elections to be free and fair. The elections may be free but unless there are the necessary amendments made, I don't think we could say that they would be fair.
Karan Thapar: Now imagine you are discussing these potential amendments with the authorities in power. What sort of response do you get from them? Are they willing to accept that these need to happen or are they willing to do it between now and 2015 or do you sense resistance?
Aung San Suu Kyi: When you talk about discussing with the authorities, certainly I have not discussed with the government, with the cabinet, if you like, directly. But we contested the by-elections, we made it very clear that the main plank of our election platform was amendments to the constitution. So, it is not as if the government was so unaware about it. They knew it very well that this is one of our aims. I have discussed it with some people in the legislature and there is not so much resistance in some quarters as you might fear. But on the other hand, the cabinet, the president and his government as such have not as yet shown much willingness to move in that direction. I think the president was interviewed a few weeks ago and when he was asked about amendments to the constitution, he said it was the job of the legislature. I do not think I agree with that because anybody who clearly wishes to move Burma in the proper direction of democracy should be involved in trying to amend the constitution. And besides the president was the chairman of the constitution convening committee.
Karan Thapar: Will you then at some point of time formally knock on their doors and say this needs to be done or will you start a process of negotiation and initiate it?
Aung San Suu Kyi: This is something that we'll have to start in the legislature and since I am in the legislature, obviously I would start.
Karan Thapar: Let's come to the legislature. You have been a member of parliament since earlier this year – April. What sort of parliament are you a member of, can you initiate a discussion you want? Can you be as open and critical as you like to be or there are constraints and restraints on your behaviour or on speech?
Aung San Suu Kyi: Well, the constraints on my behaviour are in the sense that we have to get into the house when the bell rings and so on.
Karan Thapar: Normal discipline.
Aung San Suu Kyi: No, rather school-like discipline I would say but no constraints at all otherwise. The speakers of both houses are fair-minded, particularly the speaker of my house – the lower house. And we are treated with respect as the opposition, although we are very very few in numbers and I am quite free to say what I want to say and I do say what I want to say. I don't make too many speeches in parliament because I am not fond of standing up and making speeches.
Karan Thapar: But if you wanted to stand up and criticise government policy or you want to make a particular point that is critical of the president or the members of the cabinet, you will be free to do so?
Aung San Suu Kyi: Oh of course. I would be free to do so. I have criticised the government's policy with regard to education for example.
Karan Thapar: How do you view President Thein Sein? He is a former army general, many people outside Burma believe he is piloting some of the changes, although as you said they are ad-hoc and unstructured? How do you view him as a president in this period of transition?
Aung San Suu Kyi: I do not know him very well personally and I think that what we need during this period of transition is perhaps more decisiveness and to be able to structure the reform process, as I said earlier, because reform is always difficult as it is and if it is unstructured then we would find that we may not be moving in the direction in which we should be going.
Karan Thapar: You say you need him to be more decisive. Is he less than decisive because he is not his own man? Is he being, in a sense, manipulative by the army behind him?
Aung San Suu Kyi: I don't think he is being manipulated by the army. I am not sure why he is not decisive as we think that he might be. It may be part of his temperament, it may be because of the people around him. As I said I don't know him that well personally.
Karan Thapar: Do you feel that you can trust him? Is he the sort of man who can with a certain amount of encouragement, a certain amount of pushing can deliver the goods over the next two years to move Burma towards full democracy.
Aung San Suu Kyi: I don't know. I can't guarantee that because I don't know him well enough.
Karan Thapar: How do you view the army? Is the Union Solidarity and Development Party, which rules Burma at the moment just as Thien's civilian facade for Army rule or do you feel deep down that the generals are struggling with trying to find a way to barracks even if it is difficult and awkward to do?
Aung San Suu Kyi: I think at this moment the USDP is quite separate from the army, whether or not the army wishes to go back to barracks is a different matter. But certainly the army and the USDP are not one and the same.
Karan Thapar: So, the belief that the world outside has that this is the civilian facade for an affective or a sensuous army rule, is perhaps mistaken?
Aung San Suu Kyi: Well no because the constitution gives military great power over the civilian government. So, it is not wrong to say that it is the military which has the influence over the government and of course the ruling party.
Karan Thapar: What about the fact that you are yourself, many people outside Burma forget this, is actually an army daughter. Your father the great General Aung San is one man the army most reveres than any other. Still this army kept you under house arrest for almost 16 years. Do you trust the army or have you learnt through experience to be a little wary of them?
Aung San Suu Kyi: We have to be wary of everybody, not just the military people but also civilians as well. In politics is like that. But I have never hidden the fact that I am very fond of army. I do not like what the army has been doing and I would like it once again to be the kind of army my father had built up and which my father hoped would defend the right of the people of the country. So, my basic affection for the army has never changed. Throughout these 24 years, I have always said that I have a strong affection for the army and I always hope that one day it will again become the kind of army my father had wished it to be.
Karan Thapar: And am I right in detecting in what you said a consciousness on your part that as you move Burma slowly but hopefully steadily towards full democracy, it is a sense that you keep the army with you all the time.
Aung San Suu Kyi: Of course. Let's be practical. It's because of the army coup back in 1962 that we lost democracy and the powers of the military over the civilian government are woven into the constitution so it is only with the willing cooperation of the army that we can move Burma along the right path of the democracy without violence.
Karan Thapar: So, do you maintain informal relations, perhaps backdoor relations with essential generals so that from time to time so that you are sure...
Aung San Suu Kyi: I have no backdoor or frontdoor relations with them as yet, I wish I did.
Karan Thapar: You'd like to have them?
Aung San Suu Kyi: Of course. I mean the only way you can understand one another and the only way to work together is by getting to know one another.
Karan Thapar: If all goes well and the amendments to the constitution that we were talking about, in particular the amendment that debars you from contesting for the presidency, are removed between now and 2015, would you stand for the presidency or you have a certain hesitation in taking that final step?
Aung San Suu Kyi: No, I don't have any hesitation. We mustn't be pusillanimous in politics. What is democratic politics about if we don't try to win for our party and if my party wins, obviously I would like to be the leader of that party, which means the leader of the government.
Karan Thapar: So, today Aung San Suu Kyi is a full-fledged politician?
Aung San Suu Kyi: Karan, I am very glad you made this remark because I keep asking what have I been the last 20 years if not a politician.
Karan Thapar: Absolutely. Today you come to India when the world is concerned about the sectarian or the communal violence in Rakhine State between the Rohingya Muslims and the Buddhist. How do you view what is happening there?
Aung San Suu Kyi: First of all, it was coming. About more than 10 years ago I said if something was not done about the porous border there would be trouble. There is too much of coming and going. The immigration authorities were corrupt, the border is not properly patrolled so Bangladesh claims that people come over from Burma and Burma claims people come over from Bangladesh. Everybody is pointing fingers at everybody else. And then since the trouble started a few months ago, I said the first thing to do is to establish the rule of law. There must be rule of law, violence must come to a stop. But enough action was not taken and violence escalated and now it has got to a stage that the two communities hate each other and don't wish to live near one another. This is terrible. And that kind of communal hostility takes time to heal. So, we have to concentrate on law and order and make sure that everybody is secure. Until people are secured, they will not be prepared to talk to one another and work out a long term solution.
Karan Thapar: Now, recently reports on BBC and there were several of them suggesting that Burmese security forces were standing by and not intervening when the Rohingyas were being attacked. Some reports even suggested that the security forces themselves had participated in attacking the Rohingyas and as you must have been aware, there have been elements in the West trying to suggest that may be the Rohingyas are victims of some sort of crude, ethnic cleansing. How do you respond to that?
Aung San Suu Kyi: Well, I had reports that there had been firing by the military on the Buddhists as well and a couple of days ago we saw on the internet a piece of news that there have been clashes between the military and armed groups but we were not quite sure whether these were Muslims or Buddhists, it could be either. Both situations are very fluid. I do not think we could say that ethnic cleansing is the issue here, I think it's prejudice. The whole situation managed very badly so that both communities are highly suspicious of one another and while the Muslims on one hand feel that there is ethnic cleansing being carried out against them, the Buddhists on the other hand feel that they are going to be wiped out from their own land.
Karan Thapar: Let's come finally to you, yourself. You spent almost 16 years under house-arrests, separated from your husband Michael, unable to meet your own sons Kim and Alexander. Infact even when Michael was dying of cancer, you weren't able to go and be with him for fear that they wouldn't let you come back to Burma. Did you surprise yourself with the fortitude and the resolve with which you took all of this?
Aung San Suu Kyi: No. Do people actually surprise themselves? If people are surprised by themselves then obviously they haven't taken time to get to know themselves properly.
Karan Thapar: You always believed that you have that inner strength and resolve in you?
Aung San Suu Kyi: I did not think of it as inner strength. I just thought of it as the way I chose to go.
Karan Thapar: There was something which you said in your Nehru Memorial lecture yesterday that struck my attention. You said, "Ones who make real sacrifices are the ones who let us go free to keep our secret tryst with destiny." Were you suggesting that although the world has applauded your sacrifices perhaps the real sacrifices were made by your husband Michael and your sons Kim and Alexander?
Aung San Suu Kyi: I wasn't referring to my family in particular. I was referring to the families of all activists - families and friends the ones who were supportive through all those years when we decided that we were going to stick to our principles and we were going to live on for our cause come what may. And it was the families who had to be extremely supportive and extremely self-sacrificing.
Karan Thapar: You know, when you left Oxford, in the late 80s and went to Burma, your two sons were barely teenagers. In the next 20 years, they have grown up. They have become adult men. They have got families of their own. You were absent during that entire period. Is that something that you regret?
Aung San Suu Kyi: No, regret not. I felt sorry because it's very normal for parents to want to with their children. But I was always aware of the fact that they were far better off than many of the children of my colleagues.
Karan Thapar: But is that something that you look upon as a sacrifice you made or do you say to yourself no that was life, that was my fate?
Aung San Suu Kyi: No that is my choice, not my fate but my choice.
Karan Thapar: Was it a hard choice to make?
Aung San Suu Kyi: It was not particularly easy but I knew what I would choose to do.
Karan Thapar: During those years, 16-17 years under arrest, isolation and loneliness what did you learn about yourself?
Aung San Suu Kyi: That I had to reply on myself. And that it was alright for me to be alone.
Karan Thapar: When you say alright to be alone, did you have to leave any disciplined life to ensure that regular, routine things happen?
Aung San Suu Kyi: Yes. Of course. But one takes practical measures to make sure that you are as strong as possible in the prevailing circumstances. Physically as well as mentally.
Karan Thapar: Music meant a lot to you. I gather from things that you said that playing the piano gave you peace of mind. Was that one way in which you kept your mental equanimity?
Aung San Suu Kyi: Well, playing the piano was good for me because I am very bad at it. And so I have to work very hard at it. So when I am trying to play the piano, I have to put all my mind into it. And which was a good thing.
Karan Thapar: And the radio was your secret window to the world?
Aung San Suu Kyi: Not so secret. But it was my window to the world.
Karan Thapar: And the BBC in particular?
Aung San Suu Kyi: Yes the BBC World Service. Not in later years because I think, the programs now were not as varied as they used to be.
Karan Thapar: Today no doubt, you are a tougher and stronger person as a result of everything that you have been through But do you sometimes miss the old Suu Kyi?
Aung San Suu Kyi: No. I don't think there is any point in missing anybody including your old self.
Karan Thapar: That part of your life, before you went back to Burma, is now over and done with and finished?
Aung San Suu Kyi: No, no. It's part of my life. What I am now is partly because of what I was then. I don't think you ever really divorce yourself from the you of the past. This is another reason why there is no need for you to miss your old you. It's always there as a part of you anyway.
Karan Thapar: Aung San Suu Kyi, a pleasure talking to you.
Aung San Suu Kyi: Well, thank you Karan. I wanted to tell everybody that you were a rolly-polly, little five-year-old when I first met you.