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Los Angeles Times Interview : Aung San Suu Kyi : Striving to Build a Democracy Amid the Harsh Regime of Myanmar

April 14, 1996|Scott Kraft | Scott Kraft, Paris bureau chief for The Times, interviewed Aung San Suu Kyi at her home in Yangon, Myanmar

YANGON, MYANMAR — Aung San Suu Kyi had a rigid routine during the six years she spent under arrest in her family's lakeside home. She would rise at 4:30 a.m. for exercise and meditation, then spend the day reading biographies or autobiographies and listening to the radio. The only human being she would see was the maid.

Though free for eight months now, she still spends most of her days in that two-story house. But the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner is hardly isolated. Two appointments secretaries, one for foreign dignitaries and the other for fellow party members, have guided thousands of visitors to meet her.

"I'm afraid I can no longer keep to a strict timetable," Suu Kyi says. "I can't get up at 4:30 anymore because there are times I don't get to bed until 2 a.m. If I got up early, I wouldn't be able to operate full-steam for 12 hours."

Many here hoped her release was a first step toward democracy in Myanmar. But the military regime, which nullified her party's victory in the 1990 elections, still runs the country. It is stage-managing a constitutional convention while trying to attract foreign investment.

Suu Kyi is biding her time and rebuilding her party network. Her weekdays are filled with appointments and on weekends, hundreds of supporters gather outside the gated compound to hear her speak and answer their questions. Soon, she says, the government will come to its senses.

Even as the government tries to ignore her, Suu Kyi, 50, remains the most-respected political figure in Myanmar. Her father, Aung San, is considered, even by her detractors, as the greatest hero of Burmese independence. He was assassinated in 1947, when she was 2.

Suu Kyi left Burma in 1960, at age 15, and later received a degree from Oxford University. She married a Briton, Michael Aris, who is now a professor and specialist in Tibetan studies at Oxford. In 1988, she returned to Burma to tend to her ailing mother and became a leader of the pro-democracy movement.

Aris and the couple's two sons, Kim, 18, and Alexander, 22, who are in school abroad, usually visit Suu Kyi at holidays, as they did during her years of house arrest, if the government grants them visas. Suu Kyi is prevented from leaving Myanmar only by the certainity that she would never be allowed to return.

In person, Suu Kyi is low-key and polite, though her determination is evident. She always refers to the country as Burma and the capital as Rangoon, purposefully ignoring the government decree that this nation be called Myanmar and the city, Yangon.

She meets visitors at home in a square room surrounded by 1940s-era photographs of her familyand a wall-sized painting of her father. "The painting is a bit Andy Warhol, don't you think?" she says. "But it's really a very good likeness."

*

Question: How would you assess the eight months since you've been released? What are the positive developments and the disappointments?

Answer: Well, in politics, I don't think you ever get disappointed as such. It's an occupational hazard that things don't always turn out as you would wish them to. You hope for the best and prepare for the worst. That's politics.

The most positive aspect of things since my release is the fact that our party has become far more active. We've been reorganizing and reconsolidating. We've been subjected to a lot of restrictions. There continue to be intimidations and harassment.

But we still have the strong support of the people and we manage to get along with our party building.

Q: Many in the West thought that when you were released, everything would begin to improve.

A: I don't think it's as simple as that. There are some people who say I was released because the government thought the National League for Democracy was dead. But in fact, it is far from dead. There have been miscalculations like that in the past by this government.

In the 1990 elections, the government thought we might win a plurality but not an absolute majority. In fact, we got 82%, with the result that those elections have been totally ignored and our members persecuted.

Q: So you aren't disappointed in the slow pace of change?

A: I wouldn't say "disappointed" is the word. There is so much happening within our party that it does compensate for what is not happening on the other side.

Of course, we know that the best thing for the country is national reconciliation, which can only take place through dialogue. And we hope that it will take place sooner rather than later. But that doesn't mean we just sit and hope. We have other work to do and we carry on.

Q: So you aren't impatient with the pace of things?

A: If you are very busy, you have no time to be impatient. If you ask us when do we want democracy, well, we want it now, of course. I feel just as strongly about that as anybody else. But because we are so occupied with our numerous jobs, we are not that impatient.

Q: Do you think the current constitutional conference, in which your party is not participating, is a step in the right direction?

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