Amid an international outcry over the escalating refugee crisis in western Myanmar and neighboring Bangladesh, the country's de facto leader and State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi spoke to the Nikkei Asian Review on Sept. 21 at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the capital, Napyitaw. In a rare interview, she discussed topics including the Rakhine crisis, economic priorities and Myanmar's international relations. Below is an edited transcript of the 50-minute interview.
Q: How do you respond to international criticism of your leadership, and what has been the most surprising development?
A: Actually, nothing surprising because opinions change and world opinions change like any other opinion. We have found -- and this is quite understandable -- countries that have been through a transition process themselves are much more understanding than those which have never gone through such a process. With regard to reactions within the country, we do have an opposition force, which is how it should be in any country -- in any democratic country. We are not altogether a fully-fledged democracy. It means we are open to criticism and debate.
Q: How do you handle criticism regarding citizenship for Muslims in Myanmar?
A: Whatever we are doing, we are doing in accordance with the law. We've always said the rule of law is going to be one of the main planks of our party platform. So we go in accordance with the rule of law, and those who are entitled to citizenship under the law will be given citizenship.
Q: Realistically, when could the return of refugees from Bangladesh and the verification process start?
A: We can start quickly; it doesn't mean it will be completed quickly. I never said it would be completed quickly. All I said was that we can begin any time, because this is nothing new. The criteria for the verification process [were] laid down in 1993 by the Bangladeshi and the Myanmar government[s]; so there's nothing new, and the Bangladeshi government has agreed to it. It can literally begin any minute. But of course, that doesn't mean we'll complete the whole process quickly.
Q: You mentioned in your Sept. 19 speech a 1993 agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar for the return of refugees. As this agreement was negotiated by Myanmar's military, would you expect the military to recognize it now?
A: Yes --1993 was the time of the military government. This is purely a matter to be handled by the government, and it will be handled by the government. [As for] the timeframe, I cannot say. When it begins will depend as much on the Bangladeshi government as on us. We cannot go in and carry out a process in their country unless they are willing. We have always been in dialogue with the Bangladeshi government -- in fact, the last time this kind of process was carried out was back in 2005, and it came to a stop because there were some people there who did not want to come back and we were told only those who wanted to come back should be made to come back. So there were just about 2,000 families left to be verified; the rest had already been repatriated. It goes back to 2005; things have been on hold since then.
Q: You mentioned in your Sept. 19 speech that "50% of villages" remain intact in northern Rakhine?
A: I'm talking about the Rakhine villages [Buddhist and Muslim]. Although 30% of the Muslim villages were as they were before -- no problems there, all quite calm, and everything carrying on as usual. But people overlook these villages; they concentrate on the ones where the conflicts have taken place and from where the exodus started. The 50% I am talking about are ones which were left untouched -- no damage, nobody leaving; just carrying on as normal.
Q: You mentioned in your Sept. 19 speech that the exodus would be investigated, but surely you know the reasons?
A: We would like to know because, as I said, the largest number seems to have left over the past couple of weeks. Everything had quieted down by the 5th of September, so I just wondered why people started leaving after things had quieted down. It could be they were afraid there might be reprisals; it could be for other reasons. I am genuinely interested because if we want to remedy the situation, we've got to find out why -- why all the problems started in the first place.
We will look into it, of course. I do not like to use the word "investigation," because it looks as though we are going to grill people and ask them why... But we do want to look into the situation to find out why now, after things have quieted down, the displacement began in real earnest -- because there weren't many people going before. The great majority of the villages which have emptied are the ones along the border, where it is very easy for them to leave at any time.
Q: Have you considered the videos and photographs that have been posted on the internet of villages burning and Buddhist mobs?
A: We were not able to acquire evidence either way. And, of course, there are photographs of smoke billowing -- but we don't know who started the smoke. And of course, we don't quite know when those pictures were taken. So it's very difficult for us. But if you're going to try to work in accordance to the rule of law, you have to have proper evidence, acceptable evidence -- not just hearsay, or not just something that might be considered evidence. It has to be acceptable in a court of law. We will study the situation [and] examine the causes [of] these developments.
Q: Regarding your invitation in the Sept. 19 speech to the international community to visit sites in Rakhine State, is this open to international aid organizations too?
A: I think it was just the diplomatic community I invited. The humanitarian aid program has already started under the leadership of Amnesty for Relief and Resettlement. We'll have to arrange [for the diplomatic community to visit]. Of course, we have to take care of their security, which is a responsibility.
Q: You said you did "not fear international scrutiny" -- does that mean you would reconsider the United Nations request for permission to send a fact-finding mission on Rakhine issues to Myanmar?
A: International scrutiny means scrutiny by international bodies, which is not necessarily any particular body. After all, we established the Kofi Annan commission because we thought this would provide us with an international dimension with regard to what we need to do in Rakhine. And we established that commission before any of the problems began last year. In fact, the problems began after we had established the commission. And again, it is interesting because last year in October and November, when the attacks took place, nothing had been happening; we had established the central committee for Rule of Law and Development in the Rakhine; we had invited Dr. Kofi Annan to lead the commission that would advise us on how we could bring long-term development and prosperity to the region. Everything was very quiet and going smoothly -- sometimes I wonder whether it wasn't going too smoothly from some people's point of view.
To begin with, yes, [it will be limited to the diplomatic community]. We can't even take responsibility to send the whole of the diplomatic community together at the same time. We have to do it in a manageable way. And we already have a list of diplomats who are interested. I think it's got to be first-come-first-serve. We can't send everybody out at the same time. We have not changed our opinion with regard to the fact-finding mission.
Q: Are you confident that the military will support the implementation of the recommendations of the Annan commission report?
A: It is a great and admirable report. [Annan] tried to be as fair and balanced as possible. Some of the facts in the report were not quite accurate, but we pointed that out to the commission and they have agreed that some of the facts needed to be corrected... We've already set up [an inter-ministerial commission].
Q: What will you do about the Annan commission's more controversial recommendations on freedom of movement, and so on?
A: We said we would have to go step by step. What is implementable immediately can be implemented. But what is not implementable immediately will have to wait. For example, with regard to freedom of movement -- Dr. Kofi Annan said, I think even in his interim report, it was not because freedom of movement was not allowed, but because there was not enough security for people to feel free, that there were limits on freedom of movement. And we are aware of that. Security is not just a matter of security forces; it is also a matter of the two communities learning to live with each other in a harmonious way. [As for security forces] it is not just the military; we have the police. And our communal security should be cared for by the police. That is how it is in normal democratic societies. Our police are very, very much undermanned. We need more policemen; we need better equipment; we need better training. It is not something we can achieve overnight. We have already given much more police resources to the Rakhine than to other regions in the country because of the need there... It is up to the government to implement the Kofi Annan report. With regard to the security aspect, certainly security cooperation will be needed.
Q: Some observers have suggested that there have been significant shifts in your relationship with the military. Is that the case?
A: Of course, a new relationship is starting. Things are changing all the time. I don't think it's a bad change.
Q: Some countries have been very critical of your policies, while others, such as China, have been more supportive. Has the Rakhine crisis led to a change in your foreign policy priorities?
A: We will maintain our policy of trying to establish friendly relations with all countries all over the world. Of course, we are always aware that Myanmar is not just Rakhine. Sometimes I think some countries are not aware of that. They forget that Myanmar is not just Rakhine; but we are very much aware of the fact. We hope for more support from everybody; support is always very useful.
Q: Does this include reaching out more to the West?
A: We have always been in touch with them. It's not as though we have reached out any less to them than we've always done. I think the Asian perspective has always been rather different from the Western one. Although I would like to think it's not so much [a matter of] geographical [location] as a matter of experience; what we've experienced in our part of the world is not the same as what has been experienced in another part of the world... The difference is not so much in geographical position, but in their experience and our experience. Those countries that have been through transition processes themselves are much more understanding of our difficulties and the challenges that we face -- including central European countries, which is out West, geographically speaking... Japan also went through a very difficult period of adjusting after [World War II]. These periods of adjustment are the most difficult ones. Only those that have been through these periods... Transition is about adjustment, to different situations, to different conditions.
Q: The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is obviously important to Myanmar, butpeople talk about the "fault lines' opening up in the grouping over the Rakhine issue. How do you see it affecting Myanmar's relations with fellow ASEAN countries, and also the impact of the issue on the grouping itself?
A: I think ASEAN as a regional force has done very, very well -- I think much better than anybody expected when it came into being. We are happy to be part of ASEAN, and we hope we will be able to contribute more; of course, so far we have been among the weaker members of ASEAN.... I don't think it's ever possible to deal monolithically with any regional organization. I mean -- look at the [European Union], and that's a much older institution than ASEAN. It is always at two levels, regionally and bilaterally. And I think ASEAN has a good internal relationship.
Q: Would you hold another "special briefing" on Rakhine for ASEAN members, as you did previously?
A: I suppose our representative at the United Nations will be taking part in [a special ASEAN meeting] in New York. We have no plans to convene [another special meeting] ourselves so far.
Q: Are you worried that Rakhine problems will affect investor sentiment and foreign investment?
A: Of course, we have to be aware of the possibility that there might be some impact. But I don't think we are unduly worried. It would be foolish not to take into consideration the fact that these developments could impact investment possibilities. We have to work on everything at the same time -- that's government. Those who are interested in the Rakhine situation from the outside will only focus on the Rakhine situation. But we have to carry on with the rest of the country -- including the economy, health, education, development, peace process, everything. And we keep our eyes open to make sure that we are doing the best in every possible sector.
Q: Do you have a message for investors?
A: It's natural that they should be concerned about it. But they should step back a little and look at it coolly. They will be able to see that one of the reasons why we have problems like these is because of underdevelopment rather because of investments. So investments would actually help to make the situation better.
Q: What are your priorities for investment?
A: We are concentrating a lot in basic infrastructure, which to people from Australia and Japan might seem almost laughable, like roads and electricity. But it is very important for potential investors that there should be basic infrastructure. And our infrastructure sector has gathered strength in recent years. This should be an incentive for more investment. There are new opportunities, developments which would make investment a lot easier, practically speaking. There are businesses interested in investing, but not interested in building roads, for example. But as the roads are bad... that makes it so much simpler. Construction work has gone very well over the last 1.5 years. There's massive demand; but I think at the moment, the funding is adequate for what we are able to do. With all the funding in the world, you can't do everything at once.
Q: What are your domestic economic priorities?
A: We are concentrating on the agriculture sector, that's only practical, because about 70% of our people still earn their living in agriculture. And we do want to promote more investment in that area. We are going for more PPP [public private partnerships] and for more SMEs [small and medium sized enterprises] in the agriculture sector.
Q: What is the impact of travel advisories and warnings about Myanmar issued by other governments to tourists. Could this hit the nascent travel industry and its growing contribution to Myanmar's GDP?
A: It depends from where we expect the great majority of our tourists. I think our Minister of Tourism is very much aware of this, and where the great numbers of our tourists are coming from. At the moment, we are getting the greater number from the East [Asia] rather than the West. Domestic tourism is a little different from the way in which international tourists proceed -- because a lot of domestic tourism is due to pilgrimages to religious sites -- though more people are now going to the beaches.
Q: In the banking sector there are concerns that tough new prudential regulations issued by the Central Bank of Myanmar in July on minimum capital, liquidity, and overdrafts, etc. could put dangerous pressure on banks because of what they claim is an impossible time frame. Are you concerned this could fuel problems in the banking sector?
A: I understand the concern about the timeframe. But that's negotiable. Of course, these regulations are necessary; but I think if the timeframe needs to be adjusted, I'm sure it can be adjusted. We are thinking about it because many people have voiced their concerns with regard to the timeframe, and I'm sure the central bank is very well aware of that.
Q:You are tackling the need for more electricity and also infrastructure to underpin development. And how about forms of energy, would you hope to diversify further into coal? And how about the role of hydropower?
A: Coal is very controversial because, as people say, there is no such thing as "clean coal energy," just relatively clean coal energy. Of course, we are not Japan, which is to say we don't have the kind of infrastructure that will give us cheap, relatively clean coal energy. We also have to think of the long-term consequences -- how much coal are we going to be able to produce in the long run? And are we going to end up having to import? And is that going to be economically viable? We have to look at different angles. With regard to hydro -- we can think in terms of micro-hydro, mini-hydro -- several varieties of hydro which would be acceptable to people from an environmental point of view. I think there are a number of Japanese groups interested in mini- and micro-hydro, rather than the enormous projects that create so much controversy.
Q: Myanmar has abundant gas but is selling much of it to Thailand. Is there scope for renegotiating that agreement?
A: Some agreements were made before we took over the administration. So we'll have to look at the situation and consider our needs; and we also have to respect agreements made with our business partners; otherwise, we will not be considered as an economically reliable country to work with. I think we would like to use as many sources as possible, and this is the most practical way of going about it. Of course, we have a lot of hydro resources, but as you know there are environmental and political issues attached to those.
Q: How do you see your achievements in the economy so far?
A: If some people say it is going too quickly and some people say it is going too slowly, it is probably going at the right pace.