HONOLULU (Jan. 28, 2013) -- Nobel peace laureate and Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi said in Hawai‘i on Friday that negotiated compromise with the current government is the best way forward for her country’s nascent political awakening.
Since her release in 2010 from years of house arrest under the country’s former military regime, Suu Kyi has been working with President Thein Sein, a former general, on reforms that have brought increased political openness to the country, which the government has renamed Myanmar but Suu Kyi still prefers to call Burma. The reforms have resulted in a relaxation of international sanctions and an official visit in November by President Obama.
Noting that the country’s military-drafted 2008 constitution, while instituting civilian rule, still reserves one quarter of legislative seats for the military, Suu Kyi said military cooperation would be necessary in moving reforms forward.
“I think the members of our military, like the rest our nation, would like to see Burma a happier, stronger, more harmonious country,” Suu Kyi told a group of Hawai’i community leaders gathered at the East-West Center in Honolulu. “Because of that, I do note rule out the possibility of solutions through negotiated compromise. In fact, that is the way I want to go.”
After East-West Center President Charles E. Morrison observed that Suu Kyi’s father, assassinated independence leader Aung San, was a general who founded the modern Burmese army but then disarmed it in order to negotiate for peaceful independence from Britain after World War II, Suu Kyi laughed: “That’s why I’m very fond of the military. I’ve often been criticized for saying that I’m fond of the Burmese army, but I can’t help it; it’s the truth.”
Suu Kyi said one topic she especially hopes to be able negotiate are amendments to the country’s military-drafted constitution. “What we want to change about the constitution are those clauses which detract from democratic values, and there are a number of them,” she said. For example, one provision - which she said is aimed at specifically her – prevents anyone with foreign family members from becoming president. Suu Kyi’s late husband, Michael Aris, was a British scholar, and their two sons were born in London.
“The reason I object to this clause is because it was written with me in mind, and I do not think it is right for any constitution to be written with anybody in mind – whether it is to keep them in office for life, or to keep them out of office for life,” she said. “It’s not democratic, and it’s not what a constitution is all about.”
But the constitutional provisions that concern her the most, she said, are those that “may put obstacles in the way of a genuine union, because the aspirations of our ethnic nationalities are not fully met by the present constitution. Unless we can meet those aspirations, we can never hope to build up a true and lasting union based on peace and harmony.”
Suu Kyi was in Hawai‘i on a visit to receive a peace award at a global conference of Rotary International, in addition to meeting with community leaders at the East-West Center and addressing students as part of the Pillars of Peace Hawai‘i initiative that has brought several Nobel Peace Prize winners to the islands to share values and ideas.
She said she is very happy to be in famously multi-ethnic Hawai‘i, “because I want to learn about harmony between different people and cultures. We are a nation of many ethnicities, but we have never achieved the harmony that we wish for; we are still divided in many ways. I hope to learn from the people of Hawai‘i how we can reconcile differences and build unity out of diversity, how we can make diversity a strength rather than a weakness for our nation.”
Elected to Burma’s national legislature in landmark elections last spring – less than two years after she was released from years of on-and-off confinement – Suu Kyi now chairs that body’s Committee for the Rule of Law and Tranquility.
“When people ask me what I mean by democracy, I often say that what I mean is a system that will give us both freedom and security in the right balance,” she said. “In the name of security, many authoritarian governments have deprived their people of freedom, but then in the name of freedom, the security of peoples has also been destroyed. What we are looking for is a society where there is a harmonious balance … based on a foundation of compassion and respect for differences between cultures and traditions.”
Suu Kyi said she knows this will be difficult, but that she is a great believer in hard work: “I always say ‘there’s no hope without endeavor.’ If you hope for something, you have to work toward it. If we want our society to survive the new challenges that we’re facing now, we’ll have to work very hard to do that. But we also hope that our friends (in other countries) will help us to achieve our goals.”