On Nov. 13, Aung San Suu Kyi, the world’s most famous political prisoner, walked free from house arrest in Burma. Her crumbling white villa on Rangoon’s Inya Lake had, for most of the past two decades, been her prison. She was first detained in 1989, a year before her National League for Democracy party took 82 per cent of the seats in nationwide elections. Those results were famously tossed out by the military regime that has ruled Burma since 1962 and threw the NLD leadership, Suu Kyi included, behind bars. Late last month, Suu Kyi was reunited with her youngest son, Kim Aris, 33, named for the Rudyard Kipling hero, after a decade-long separation. The 65-year-old Nobel laureate and democratic icon spoke to Maclean’s from Rangoon.
Q: You have said you never felt as though you were apart from your two sons. Could you explain?
A: We’ve always been very close to each other. Although it’s been many years since I have seen them, I have thought of my sons very often—not just the younger one who has come to Burma now [Kim], but my eldest son, Alexander, as well. I have kept alive their memories and images. I missed them, of course—but in other ways, they were very, very much alive in my heart and mind.
Q: You once said something similar of your father, Gen. Aung San, the country’s founding father, who was assassinated in 1947, shortly before Burma won its independence from Britain. That at times during your lonely struggle you have been alone, but you have always known that you had your father’s backing.
A: Yes, that’s right. I was only two when he died, so I don’t really remember him, but my mother and others have always talked about him, so I have always felt very close to him. Of course, I was always told he was particularly fond of me. I was the youngest of his children, and the only daughter, and that always made me feel we had a special relationship.
Q: How does it feel to be free?
A: Well, for one thing, it’s exhausting. I don’t seem to have time to breathe. Everything’s happening so quickly, and so much is happening all the time.
Q: You said you were actually quite busy while under house arrest—right from 4:30 in the morning, when you rose to meditate. How did you pass the time?
A: I was the—shall we say “handyman”?—around the house. I had to fix minor electricity problems, and so forth. And then, of course, there was the whole business of listening to the radio. I sat in front of it for five or six hours a day, in order to keep up with the rest of the world.
Q: You also read widely while under arrest: on history, economics and politics, primarily, but your lawyer said you managed to get your hands on a Harry Potter book. Can I ask why Harry Potter?
A: Well, I was given some Harry Potter books by a young friend. I wanted to know why young people liked it so much. And I noted that there were some values in Harry Potter that are common to many books that are popular all over the world. In the end, I think people prefer the good to win, rather than the bad.
Q: “Violence begets violence,” you have said, and you have been very clear since your release about how you wish to make change.
A: I’ve always been strongly on the side of non-violence. Also, I think that if you use the wrong means, the ends themselves get distorted. I was speaking to a writer the other day and he gave me a valuable piece of advice. He said that you may get to where you want to go quicker through violence, but the healing process takes longer. Whereas if you don’t use violence, there is not much healing necessary, so you win in the long run.
Q: Yet you are positioning your political movement as an active opposition to the military leadership, and are calling for a revolution. Could you explain how you define the term?
A: A revolution simply means great change, significant change, and that’s how I’m defining it—great change for the better, brought about through non-violent means. And we do need great change in Burma. We are trying to build a new society, a society where basic human rights are respected, and where our people enjoy all the benefits of democratic institutions.
Q: “If they had reached out to us,” you have said of the regime, “we would have grasped their hands.” Clearly, you believe in dialogue. And if one believes in dialogue, one must also believe in compromise. Is it too optimistic to expect some kind of compromise on the part of the military regime?
A: It may be optimistic to expect that too quickly. I think we have to work at it. I would like for both sides to sit down, and work out a solution.
Q: Expectations of you are enormous in both Burma and the West. But you have been clear since being freed that you cannot do this alone, that the fight will not be won without the support of the Burmese people.
A: That’s right. I want them to understand that if you want democracy, you have got to be prepared to accept the responsibilities of democracy. The people have to take part. They have to understand that they have the power to move things, and they must really commit themselves to change if they want it. They can’t just expect me, or the NLD, to bring about this change. This is the age of the people, the age of communications. We have all got to form a huge network, working toward a process of democratization.
Q: You haven’t lived with your sons since they were 11 and 15; you weren’t able to see your husband, Michael Aris, in England before his death in 1999 because you feared the regime wouldn’t let you back into Burma if you left. Yet you refuse to cast that as a sacrifice.
A: Yes—it is a choice I made. If you think of it as a sacrifice, it is as though you felt that you have given more than you are getting. But I think I have been given as much as I have given. The people have given me their support, they have given me their trust and confidence. My colleagues have suffered a lot in order to give me support. I do not look upon my life as a sacrifice at all.
Q: Yet you have paid such a high price. Have you ever thought it was too high?
A: No. Some of my colleagues may have paid too high a price. Over 2,000 political prisoners remain behind bars. The conditions in prisons in Burma are far worse than conditions in my house, where I have lived the last seven years.
Q: You say that fear itself can be a kind of prison. For years, you and so many Burmese have been terrorized by the military regime. How can one learn to live without fear in such an environment?
A: If not without fear, at least in spite of fear. The important thing is fear should not control your actions. It should not dictate what you do. Even if you feel fear, you still have to go ahead and do what you believe in. As I keep saying to our supporters: “All right, your knees may be knocking but that shouldn’t prevent you from going ahead and doing what you need to do.”
Q: Isn’t it true you could be imprisoned again?
A: One has to look at it as a possibility. I have been arrested time and time again, and my colleagues, too. I cannot guarantee that I’ll not be arrested again. But it’s not something that weighs on my mind. If we are fearful of arrest, we’d never be able to get on with it in this country. I’ll do what I can while I’m free. If they arrest me again, I’ll do what I can while I’m under arrest.
Q: In 2007, after a violent military crackdown on protesters, Canada imposed some of the toughest sanctions in the world on Burma, including a ban on all imports and exports, and a ban on new investment by Canadians. Would you like Canada to maintain its hardline stance?
A: We will review the sanctions position—which means we don’t particularly want any change until we see what the effects of the sanctions are. There are political effects, and economic effects, and one has to be weighed against the other, and we really want to find out whether the general public has been affected adversely.
Q: Both India and China are looking to tap oil and gas reserves on Burma’s oil-rich west coast. India recently welcomed the leader of the military junta, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, on a state visit, and has called November’s sham elections “free and fair.” How has its support for the regime made you feel?
A: I’ve been very, very saddened. India and Burma have been close friends since the days we were struggling for independence. And I’m a great admirer of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, and all those leaders of India’s independence movement. I would like to believe the aspirations and hopes we shared in the past will continue to bind us in the future.
Q: The regime maintains it won the Nov. 7 elections by a landslide. The opposition, including your party, the NLD, was divided over whether to participate in elections or boycott them. You were then still under arrest. Could you explain the NLD approach?
A: The NLD boycotted the elections, and I agree with the stand. The terms of the 2008 constitution [which ensures the military will continue to be the ultimate authority] could not benefit Burma in the long run. We think this constitution should be revised. Secondly, we couldn’t accept that the results of the 1990 elections have been swept aside in one single sentence, without reference to the will of the people. Thirdly, it was not possible for us to accept that we should expel political prisoners from our party. This would be a gross act of betrayal of our comrades. For these reasons, we decided not to contest the elections. And considering the complaints of those who did contest, I don’t think we made the wrong decision.
Q: Last month, the Supreme Court refused to hear your lawsuit challenging a recent decision to ban and dissolve your party. The NLD has had various restrictions placed on it for 20-odd years, and continued to function. Is it fair to say the party will remain an opposition force, regardless of what the courts rule?
A: We will continue to exist. We’ve existed in the past, and we’ll continue to exist as a strong political opposition. At the same time, we are going to appeal the decision of the court.
Q: In pictures and videos circulated since your release you have been surrounded by huge crowds of Burmese people, clearly delighted just to be near you. It must all be a little frightening—the crowds, the shouting, the pushing, especially after so many years of solitude?
A: No, it’s not at all alarming. It’s touching, actually. They’re all very, very cheerful. It’s nice to feel their support, their warmth.
Q: You have learned to use a cellphone since your release. Have you been able to secure an Internet connection?
A: No, not yet. I’ve made an application. But I don’t know whether it will come through or not.
Q: If you’re successful, will you use Twitter or Facebook to communicate with your supporters?
A: Can’t I do both?
Q: You are one of only five people to have ever been made an honorary citizen of Canada. Is there any chance you might visit Ottawa one day to receive the designation in person?
A: I very much hope so. I’d love to visit Canada.
Q: Are you even allowed to leave Rangoon?
A: There are no restrictions on my travelling around the country. But I have no plans to travel around the country. I’m too busy to even leave Rangoon—there is so much work here.