Suu Kyi Strikes a Chord

Burma’s opposition leader speaks out on Egypt, democracy and social media.

It was a commanding performance sprinkled with a few laughs.

Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi sounded a conciliatory note when she recently spoke with foreign correspondents in Kuala Lumpur via an audio link from Rangoon.

In drawing parallels between protests in the Middle East—censored out of the Burmese press—and the pro-democracy movement in her own country, she said an unwillingness by armies in Tunisia and Egypt to open fire on their own people was key.

It's an incomprehensible thought in Burma, as the nation’s monks discovered in 2007 when thousands demonstrated. Some were shot, arrested and beaten, while others simply disappeared. ‘The people have stood up in Burma before as you know, and in those instances they were fired upon by the army and I think that makes a great difference,’ she said.

‘Now the situation in Libya is that the army itself appears divided in regards to how the situation should be handled. In Burma, I don’t think there was any noticeable division with regards to the policies of the military.’

Suu Kyi won democratic elections in 1988, but the military declined to accept the result, opting to physically crush and intimidate any opposition out of business. She spent most of the next two decades under arrest, but was freed after last November’s poll, which was condemned as a sham in the West.

Relations with the junta haven’t improved much since she got out. The military recently warned Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) that they’d meet a tragic end if they continued to support Western sanctions against Burma.

But Suu Kyi was unfazed, saying she’d been reviled by the junta for 20 years, so nothing has changed.

She said she was happy to promote talks aimed at ending sanctions and steering the country towards national reconciliation, while at the same time warning investors that Burma remains fraught with difficulties in terms of dealing with the junta. Critics have argued that Suu Kyi and the NLD have sent mixed signals on sanctions, prompting speculation of a split among the leadership.

During a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos last month, Suu Kyi appeared to signal a policy change by lauding potential investment and lamenting that the Burmese people had been left behind while Burma’s neighbours did deals with the junta, exploiting the country’s natural resources.

Her tone on business in Burma was clear when she commented on the jailing of Australian Ross Dunkley, publisher of The Myanmar Times, who was jailed in Rangoon for a visa violation amid reports his local business partners were attempting to seize control of the newspaper.

‘I'm not certain exactly why Ross Dunkley has been arrested but certainly one thing I can say is that there is no freedom of the media yet in Burma and it helps if people try to expand the limits of what journalists can do in Burma,’ she said. ‘I think we all have to work towards greater freedom of information, but I don't know whether that kind of freedom of information can be obtained by investing in Burma in the media through the authorities.’

She added that even Burma can’t escape 21st century technology that has significantly expanded the ability of people to organize without government interference, which was a major factor behind the protests in the Middle East.

‘There haven't been reports about what’s happening across Tunisia, Egypt and Libya in the national papers, but those who know about those events are comparing what’s happening there with what happened in Burma 1988.

‘Everybody is waiting around to see with great interest what transpires because people were impressed with what happened, particularly in Egypt.’

Suu Kyi said she has also been attempting to establish Facebook and Twitter accounts, but complained the Internet connections in Burma were too slow. She added: ‘I think that I must say that I’m also reading a book on how to manage my dog.’