Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, under mounting criticism over her government's military offensive against minority Muslim Rohingyas, on Tuesday rejected claims that she had softened her stance on the military after her party took power last year.
In an interview with Radio Free Asia, she said she has remained firm with the generals since her days under house arrest during military junta rule.
"I’ve stood firm with the military before, and still do now," the Nobel laureate told RFA in a wide-ranging interview covering topics such as the Rohingya refugee crisis, her election pledge to bring about political and other reforms, as well as economic growth and media freedom.
"We’ve never changed our stand," Aung San Suu Kyi said, adding that her National League for Democracy (NLD) party's goal has been national reconciliation "from the very beginning."
"We have never criticized the military itself, but only their actions. We may disagree on these types of actions," said Aung San Suu Kyi, who had spent more than a decade under house arrest before her election victory in 2015.
The military has come under severe criticism from the international community for its security crackdown against the Rohingyas in Myanmar's Rakhine state since Rohingya militants staged deadly attacks on police posts on August 25.
Army-led security operations have left more than 1,000 dead according to U.N. figures and sent more than 500,000 people”—roughly half the Rohingya population in Rakhine state”—fleeing into neighboring Bangladesh, triggering an international humanitarian crisis.
Rights abuses condemned
On Tuesday, in her first address to the nation since the crisis flared, Aung San Suu Kyi condemned rights abuses in Rakhine state and said that violators will be punished, but did not criticize the powerful military or address U.N. accusations of ethnic cleansing.
She insisted that military "clearance operations" ended on Sept 5.
Britain says it has suspended its military training program in Myanmar, and French President Emmanuel Macron has condemned "unacceptable ethnic cleansing" in Rakhine, while U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called for an end to all military operations in the state.
In her interview, Aung San Suu Kyi said her party had tried in 2012 but failed to revoke a key provision in Myanmar’s constitution that would have removed the military’s effective veto on legislative reform.
"We did this openly within the bounds of the law. We’ll continue to bring changes within the parliament. I’ve stood firm with the military before, and still do now," she said.
Under Myanmar's Constitution, Aung San Suu Kyi is barred from becoming president and has no effective role in security issues, although her NLD party scored a landslide victory in 2015 elections. The military runs three key security-related ministries, has an allocation of 25 per cent of the seats in Parliament, and appoints one of two vice-presidents.
Aung San Suu Kyi pointed out that Myanmar wants to work with the international community to resolve the Rohingyas crisis, citing her invitation Tuesday to the diplomatic corps to visit Rakhine.
"Nobody can live in isolation in this age," she said. "Globalization is the norm and we need to have enough courage to associate globally too. So, if we prohibit outside visits, it will be like we have something to hide."
Human rights investigators from the United Nations, which has labeled the Rohingya one of the world's most persecuted minorities, say they need "full and unfettered" access to Myanmar to investigate the Rohingya crisis, but Aung San Suu Kyi's government renewed its rejection of the probe on Tuesday.
"We continue to believe that instituting such a mission is not a helpful course of action in solving the already-intricate Rakhine issue," Myanmar's U.N. ambassador Htin Lynn told the U.N. Human Rights Council.
Reported by Khin Maung Soe of RFA's Myanmar Service. Translated by Nyein Shwe and Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai and Richard Finney.
Below are excerpts from the interview:
Q: What are Myanmar’s most important challenges?
A: As the whole world knows, the biggest one now is the situation in Rakhine state. And then there is the peace process [to bring about a cease-fire with ethnic rebel groups seeking greater autonomy since independence from the British in 1948]. The world thinks the Rakhine situation is the most important. But for us, peace [with the rebel groups] has been the most challenging.
Q: What’s the peace situation then?
A: We believe that it will finally be successful. But this will take time. If we look at other peace processes, they never go smoothly. Because there was no peace in the beginning, we are now working for peace. Overall we can say it’s not too bad.
Q: How is the economic situation in Myanmar?
A: In the earlier part of the year, before the Investment Law was passed, foreign investments were very slow. After that law was passed, it had to be followed by by-laws and a Companies Act. And after that we had to deal with laws pertaining to foreigners. These all are connected, and we understand that after everything is in place we can expect more investments.
Q: What’s your assessment of the current Rakhine situation?
A: The Rakhine situation was not calm and peaceful long before we came into power. However, now that the world’s attention is focused on it, it has become overly sensitive to handle. It is always the case when a situation is given a lot of attention, that it becomes difficult and sensitive. People have been criticizing and faulting each other. If you just look at it narrowly instead of effectively, instead of solving the problem you can make it worse. As I said this morning, we should look at the good points too. There are villages where people get along. We need to find out why and how. We have to encourage them and make their ties stronger.
Q: You have said that half the [Muslim] population [in Rakhine state] has fled, and that half or more are still living here. You have requested the international community to cooperate and help.
A: Nobody can live in isolation in this age. Globalization is the norm and we need to have enough courage to associate globally too. So, if we prohibit outside visits, it will be like we have something to hide. In the end, we have to rely on ourselves for our country’s development.
Q: What do you think about the comments by the international community including the U.N. on the Rakhine situation?
A: These comments are not good for the country, of course. But we have to find out how much truth there is or what evidence they have. And if it is true, then we’ll have to correct it. If it’s not true, we have to find out why they are saying untruths. Is it because of misunderstanding, or are they intentionally attacking us? We’ll have to find the cause and find an appropriate answer.
Q: May I know the current relationship between you and the military?
A: It’s normal.
Q: Does normal mean it’s the same as before you formed the government?
A: No, there was very little contact between us before, but now we do meet regularly. In some cases we always try to get cooperation.
Q: Regarding the peace issue, it has been said that the military takes a hard-line position. What do you think?
A: There is a difference in looking at the peace process between groups that are armed and those that are not. We have to negotiate on this.
Q: You never gave in to the military while you were under house arrest, but now you seem to have softened toward them. Are they right, or do you have some other objective?
A: We’ve never changed our stand. Our goal has been national reconciliation from the very beginning. We have never criticized the military itself, but only their actions. We may disagree on these types of actions. For example, after 2012 in Parliament, we tried to revoke Article 436 [ which effectively gives the military a de facto veto over any constitutional changes]. We did this openly within the bounds of the law. We’ll continue to bring changes within the parliament. I’ve stood firm with the military before, and still do now.
Q: We are now seeing a lot of extremist Buddhists, including monks. There were some anti-government protests in Yangon and Mandalay recently. And then not too long ago in Pa-an, there was a rally where there was a lot of extreme hate speech. What do you think of this?
A: Hate speech is never good. Spreading hate speech is against Lord Buddha’s teachings. He never encouraged hate speech. Buddhism does not espouse anger, and any kind of extremism is never good. Buddhism follows the middle path. It doesn’t accept any kind of extremes.
Q: What do you think of social media, which is becoming so popular nowadays?
A: Even developed countries with a high level of communications technology have admitted that social media is becoming very hard to deal with. People write whatever they want and use it to spread hate speech, and that has become a big concern with no solution in sight yet.
Q: Some people are saying they have less freedom since your government came into power. What would you like to say? Especially concerning freedom of the media, the arrest of some reporters, etc.
A: These arrests have been made according to existing laws. We don’t have any new ones yet. Lately, Parliament has made some amendments to relax the old laws like Section 66(d) [of the 2013 Telecommunications Law].
Q: Can you tell us how the international community and Myanmar people should view the current situation in the country?
A: They should view it with a sense of responsibility, both the international community and Myanmar people. Our people should know that we in Myanmar have more responsibility. If we want to see our country developed and peaceful, we will have to do it ourselves. We cannot ignore the world, as we are in the age of globalization. Everything is connected, and we cannot ignore this. We need to be in harmony with the world; that is also our responsibility. Simply put, we have to be responsible for our country, and the world has to be responsible for the world. If everybody has a sense of responsibility, then nobody will have any problems. However, having a sense of responsibility is not always easy.
Q: What do you think of current U.S. policies and views towards Myanmar?
A: Any country will change its policy and views toward Myanmar depending on that specific country’s policy and its people’s views.
Q: Is the road to democracy still tough?
A: The road to democracy will never end. Whether or not this is tough is not the main issue. Some think there is an end to democracy. But has the road to democracy in U.S. come to the end? There will never be an end as long as the world exists. Democracy is harder to sustain than other systems because you have to take the will of the people into consideration. We need to give and take when it depends on the will of the people. Dictatorships never have to give and take. They do what they want. Superficially it looks easier to govern this way, but the effect on a country is worse. In a democracy, to be able to get the support of the people, you have to work harder. In the long run it’s good for the country. As [British statesman Winston] Churchill said, democracy is not a good system, but it’s better than all the others.