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Interview

Q&A with Aung San Suu Kyi: We see China and Japan as friends

State Counselor talks political reform, Rakhine crisis and desire for neutrality

Suu Kyi acknowledges that solving Myanmar's problems is taking time, but that sustainable solutions are more important than quick fixes. (Photo by Wataru Ito) 

TOKYO -- The Nikkei Asian Review on Wednesday interviewed Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi during her stay in Tokyo, one day after she attended the enthronement ceremony of Emperor Naruhito.

Here is an edited transcript of the interview:

Q: It has been three and a half years since the National League for Democracy took the reins of government. How do you view your political achievements so far, and the implementation of democracy in Myanmar?

A: Political achievement has to be seen in different ways. We are, of course, as you know we are a union made up of many ethnic groups but we are still trying to achieve peace within our country because there has been armed conflict since ... well, ever since we became independent.

So with the regard to the peace process, we have the 21st Century Panglong [peace conference] and we've been making progress. We've had three meetings, and in spite of of all the difficulties, at each meeting we've been able to go to forward, at least a little bit. The last meeting, we thought, was going to be difficult, but we still managed to make progress.

So I think we can say that the most important part of our political agenda, the peace process, is progressing. Not, perhaps, as quickly as we might wish, but actually no slower than expected, because you cannot solve a problem that has been alive for more than, well, more than 70 years, in three years. It would be very over optimistic of us to imagine that this would be possible.

Q: NLD has proposed amending the constitution to the parliament. What constitutional changes do you support to advance democracy in Myanmar? What are your goals for political reform?

A: If you have been following the debate in the parliament, you will know that there are many amendments that we have suggested. But basically, the amendments are aimed at achieving what we would see as the achievement of a complete democracy. At the moment, of course, our democracy is not complete. To give a very, very obvious example: 25% of the representatives are not elected. And we believe that for a democracy to be wholly complete, all the representatives must be elected. That is the basis, and there are other parts of the constitution which need to be changed in order to ensure that the sovereignty of the nation actually resides in the people.

The military still holds significant power in Myanmar, partly due to a clause in the constitution that guarantees 25% of seats in parliament are allotted to the military.   © AP

Q: What is the prospect for constitutional changes?

A: We believe the change will come, but how quickly it will come is difficult for us to predict because constitutions, after all, are made by men. And we do not see why a man-made constitution cannot be changed. It will ... of course there is resistance, as you probably know, and this has to be overcome. And it has to be overcome in the way which will not upset the unity and tranquillity of our country.

Q: So what is the reaction so far?

A: Well, so far we have been debating in our parliament and as I've noticed, the military are not overly enthusiastic about the amendments that we have suggested.

Q: Do you see some room for compromise?

A: The people are behind us. And I feel that is what is most important. I really believe that in a democracy, we have to believe that the will of the people will prevail. And it has always prevailed, sooner or later.

Q: Do you think some constitutional changes can be achieved before the next election?

A: That is difficult to say, and we are not building hopes for the next election on our ability to bring about constitution amendments within the next year.

Q: Some say the pace of the political and economic reform in the country has been rather slow under the NLD administration. It's been observed, in some Asian countries, that autocratic regimes are doing better at developing the economy than democratic governments. How would you respond to that?

A: I think we go for the sustainability. Speed and sustainability ... sustainability is much, much preferable. So we want to go for the kind of changes that would be sustainable, and as I said earlier, we want to do it in such a way that we don't upset either the tranquillity or the unity of our nation. That means we have to go slow when it's necessary to go slow. It is no use pushing a process if that is going to result in the kind of upset that is going to affect our long-term progress.

Q: Getting to the issue of fractures in Myanmar, how and when do you think you can achieve true peace?

A: Peace. Peace is not easy to achieve. If people had wanted to bring political changes through peaceful means, they would not have taken to arms in the first place.

As you know, the NLD worked for democracy for about 30 years and we adhere very, very strictly to the principle of nonviolence. And that, perhaps, has taken us longer than it might have otherwise. But I think this has had very positive results in the sense that we can always stand up and say, "We've always stood for nonviolence." And I think our people depend on us and believe in us because we believe in nonviolence.

Q: Turning to the economy, since NLD came to power, the country has been very successful in maintaining over 6% economic growth. But some point out Myanmar's economy relies too much on China. Trade with China accounts for more than 30% of the total, and 40% of external public debt is provided by China. How do you view your economic relations with China? Do you see a need for more balanced economic ties with other countries?

A: We've got good relations with China and we want to maintain good relations with countries all over the world. So if you want more of other types of investment, then I think you'd better encourage Japanese businesses to come in and invest.

Q: But how do you see China's growing economic influence in the country?

A: We see China as a friend, as we see Japan as a friend. And I think it is not right to make people choose between friends. Our country has maintained a very neutral and, in my opinion, a very common-sensical foreign policy ever since we became independent. [Because] we are a small nation, not yet developed, we [were] never at the stage where we were able to call the shots, as it were.

We've always maintained that our foreign policy will be vibrant and independent, and based on friendship towards all nations. So we welcome all friends who are happy to cooperate with us. And we would not like our country to become a bone of contention for any other group of countries.

Suu Kyi with Chinese President Xi Jinping: The state counselor played down the growing influence of China, saying that "we have good relations with China and we want to maintain good relations with countries all over the world."   © AP

Q: Before talking about relations with Japan, maybe you need to expand economic relations more with the U.S. and European governments and companies. How are you going to develop those relationships?

A: Well, we are open to engagement from all sides. But of course, it takes two to engage. It's not for us to say this country should come to invest or that country should come invest. They should be interested in investing as well. And the kind of investment that we look forward to is one that will be mutually beneficial.

We accept that foreign investors come in because they hope to reap certain profits from the investment. And we are totally in favor of that. We understand that. We accept that. But we also should benefit from the investment. So investment should work both ways: It should be beneficial for all parties involved. But of course we cannot just force people come in and invest in our country. We can only invite them. And we can show them what we have to offer, and they must show us what they have to offer.

Q: To accelerate economic growth in your country, a priority will be to develop industrial infrastructure. In particular, electric power is essential to promote investment in manufacturing. What role do you hope to see Japan play in that area?

A: We've always known that the most important sectors for us to develop were communications and energy, that is to say physical communications, as well as the energy sector. And this is what we have been concentrating on. And we do understand the need for better electricity provision for potential investors. And if Japan is interested in investing in the energy sector, you have only to tell us and we could possibly work out the kind of agreement that is beneficial for both of us: for your investments as well as for our people.

Because our people also need energy. They also need electricity for their everyday purposes, as well as for industries, because we have noticed that whenever we manage to improve the infrastructure -- that is to say, simple road communication and provide electricity, the local people start creating jobs for themselves.

When we first took over the administration in 2016, our first priority was job creation. But then we noticed, over a matter of months, that job creation followed if we provided roads. That is, all-weather roads, because our country is a monsoon country, and it is very important that we should have roads that are accessible for 12 months of the year. And we saw that by providing all-weather roads and providing electricity, the local people start creating their own opportunities for job creation. So certainly, energy is one of our top priorities.

Q: Myanmar, Japan and Thailand have been talking about development in Dawei for a long time. Have you seen any progress with that project?

A: Well, we would like you to move faster, but as you mentioned earlier, democracy moves a little more slowly then authoritarianism systems because we have to consult so many different sectors. And as you know, although we are not a wholly federal nation, this is what we are working towards. And Dawei is in the Tenasserim region [or] Tanintharyi region. So we have to also take into consideration the concerns of the regional government, and of course the local peoples, as well as the concerns of the central government. These two have to be enmeshed with the needs of would-be investors.

Q: With regards to communication infrastructure, what is the priority for the government? Is it 5G networks?

A: Well, we have the simple, basic needs as well as advanced, today's needs. We need to say, we're not just thinking in terms of IT development and communications at that level. As I said earlier, we have to address very basic communications problem of roads as well. Because that is a very practical need.

I think many people think of roads as huge highways, but we have to think of roads in terms of roads connecting villages as well. Because that is basic to our social needs, for instance, education and health, because we don't have hospitals in every village. And we have to have health facilities which are accessible to villages in many parts of the country. And as you know, about 75% our population still lives in rural areas.

But with regard to modern technology, our people are very quick to latch onto this. And I think ... you probably know that the percentage of smartphone use is very high now in our country. It has leaped over 80% over the last two years.

Q: With respect to foreign direct investment, another focus of your government is official corruption. How are you tackling this issue?

A: Well, I think we have to do it in two ways. One, of course, is to punish those who are corrupt. Well, let's put it as three ways: the other is to make sure that, particularly our civil servants, don't need to be corrupt, in the sense that we want to provide them with sufficient means for leading a dignified and meaningful life. And thirdly, I think we have to change people's mindsets.

I'm happy to say that corruption is not yet accepted in our country as a "normal" situation. Our people are not proud of corruption. No Burmese would ever admit to being corrupt with pride. They will always deny that there's any corruption involved, which is a good sign. It means they do accept that corruption is wrong, whereas in some societies, corruption is accepted as part of everyday life.

So with regards to the mindset, which is supposed to be most difficult to change, I think we have basic values that will help us make progress there. And of course, we now have laws and regulations and we have a very active Anti-corruption Commission. And with regard to the situation of civil servants, we're trying our best to provide them with the kind of facilities that will allow them to lead meaningful and dignified lives without resorting to corruption.

Suu Kyi defended the crackdown against the Muslim minority group Rohingya, saying it was in response to a "terrorist attack."   © Reuters

Q: I would like to move on to the Rakhine State crisis. In the last three years, the Myanmar government has been criticized in the West for failing to deal with the situation. The statelessness of Muslims has not been resolved and very few refugees have returned. How are you going to solve this problem?

A: We have been trying. We are aware of the fact that there were long-term problems in Rakhine, ever since we came into the administration. And our administration took over at the end of March 2016. And by the end of May [of that year], we had already formed the central commission for the rule of law and development in Rakhine. Because we knew there were long-standing problems there that stem from lack of rule of law and lack of development.

It is not a religious issue, as some people are trying to make it out to be. It is very much an economic and social issue. But more economic and social problems arise out of the economic difficulties.

Rakhine is one of the poorest, least developed parts of our country, but actually the potential there is enormous. It has just not been developed in the proper way. So we formed this commission in May [2016], and then a couple of months later we approached Dr. Kofi Annan [the former U.N. secretary-general] to head a commission to help us with resolving the social problems in Rakhine.

And almost as soon as we had arranged this, the first terrorist attack took place. And we are of the opinion that there are certain extremist elements who do not want peace in Rakhine -- who do not want a solution to the problems in Rakhine -- because for many terrorists, problems are what they thrive on.

And if there is development and tranquility, and there is understanding between two different communities, there is no room left for terrorism. So we are disappointed in the fact that the international community has paid very little attention to the terrorist element of the problems in Rakhine. We understand their concerns about human rights. And with regard to statelessness, I think you need to go much more deeply into the citizenship laws and the possibilities that are offered, not just to people in Rakhine but to people all throughout the country.

There is talk about the national verification cards being targeted specifically at people in Rakhine. It's not true at all. This is something that applies throughout the country. And all of us have to go through that process, even all of us who are born of two ethnic -- Myanmar ethnic -- parents. We have to go through the process of national verification. Once at age 12, again at age 18, and then at the age of 30. This is part of a national process. And the focus of those who do not understand the situation has just been on particular spots that interest them. But for us, we have to be interested in the whole country. Rakhine is just one of the problems and challenges that we have to face. It's not the whole of our challenges of our country.

Q: I understand your position. But in order to extend business ties with the U.S. and Europe, maybe you need to solve this problem?

A: We want to solve this problem, not in order to advance business ties with any other countries but because it's necessary for the peace and stability of our country. And that is the main reason why we want to solve the problems in Rakhine. And that's how we want to resolve them: in a way that will be sustainable and ensure peace and development in Rakhine and in other parts of our country. Because our country is whole. There may be different parts to it, but all these parts are connected. And we all have to develop and go forward together.

Q: The next general election is going to take place in November 2020. What are the prospects for the NLD, and what kind of future vision are you going to propose to your constituencies?

A: I think, in the end, it's for the people to decide what their future is going to be. It's not for any party to say, "This is going to be your future." All we can do is put forward our ideas and our suggestions as to what might possibly be the best future for all of us to work towards.

And I never talk about what the possible outcome of an election might be. I always say that I'm not an astrologer, and it's not my job to see what is going to happen in the future. My job is only to try [my] best to make sure that our party does well.

Q: I wonder how you are going to engage with the new government after the election? Your position as State Counselor will legally end by 2021. What kind of position do you expect to assume? Do you have any plans for retirement?

A: Let's find out first what kind of new government we get and then we'll decide other things.

Q: Do you have any plans for retirement?

A: Oh, I think, one always should have several plans. You can't just depend on one plan for the future. You always have to have several alternatives, and then you choose the one that is most suited to whatever the future outcome might be.

Q: And what is the plan for your successor? Do you have any ideas right now?

A: Well, in our party, of course, we have a very fixed hierarchy, as I'm sure you're aware of. And we hope that this will be maintained, and we hope we will make very regular and stable progress in the ranks of our party.

Q: Just one follow-up question about the succession of the leadership in the country in the longer term. From your three and a half years of leadership in Myanmar, what kind of characteristics will be required to lead this very complicated and challenging country?

A: I think hard work. I believe in hard work.

Interviewed by Nikkei Editor-in-Chief Tetsuya Iguchi, Nikkei Editor-in-Chief, Editorial Headquarters for Asia Toru Takahashi and Nikkei Staff writer Yuichi Nitta.

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