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Aung San Suu Kyi Free Again

Myanmar military leaders release Nobel Laureate political dissident Aung San Suu Kyi from 19 months of house arrest.

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  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Thousands of Burmese turned out today to cheer Aung San Suu Kyi, the 56-year-old politician who's been fighting her country's military government for 14 years. Upon her release from house arrest, the military leaders of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, said Suu Kyi was free to go anywhere and say anything.

  • AUNG SAN SUU KYI:

    This is certainly what all the Burmese have been wanting to hear for a very long time. We only hope that the dawn will move over very quickly into full morning.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Suu Kyi's political goals include the release of hundreds of democracy activists now in jail.

  • AUNG SAN SUU KYI:

    I and my party have been disappointed at the slow rate of release of political prisoners. We hope that whatever obstacles are in the way of their release will be overcome very soon, because their release is important, not merely in humanitarian terms, but also in political terms.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Suu Kyi is the daughter of the man who engineered the country's independence from Great Britain in the late 1940s, General Aung San. He was assassinated by a political rival in 1947. Since the early 60s, the military has been in charge of the country, under a regime it calls the "Burmese way to socialism." But in 1988, in the midst of an economic disaster, student activists rose up against the autocratic regime. In a violent crackdown, the army killed thousands of protesters.

    Around the same time, Aung San Suu Kyi returned home after decades of studying and living abroad in England. She quickly became a leader of the nonviolent struggle for democracy. In 1989, a new generation of military leaders changed the country's name from Burma to Myanmar, and placed Suu Kyi under house arrest for inciting unrest in the country.

    A year later, with Suu Kyi still under confinement, her opposition party won 80 percent of the seats in parliament. The military nullified that election. Also during her house arrest, Suu Kyi won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, a prize her two sons claimed in her absence. Throughout her detention, Suu Kyi kept her contacts with the democracy movement, and after her release in 1995, she remained outspoken.

  • AUNG SAN SUU KYI:

    We should renew our resolve to democracy, and to build up a system in which people… are not shot down simply because they have asked for something.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    In 1999, Suu Kyi's husband was dying of cancer in London, but she refused to leave Myanmar, fearing the government would deny her return. Two years ago, she was placed under house arrest again, this time for violating government restrictions on her travel.

    Her release today followed months of political talks, initially secret, hosted by Razali Ismail, the U.N.'s Special Envoy to Myanmar. In addition to Suu Kyi's release, the U.N. has sought greater political freedoms in Myanmar. In return, the government has asked for greater foreign investment, and an end to widespread trade sanctions.

    The economic appeals come at a dire time for this country of 48 million people. Once relatively wealthy, and a food exporter, the country is now on a U.N. list of the least developed countries.

    Inflation is 25 percent and rising. The opium-producing country has half a million heroin addicts, whose needle-sharing habits have triggered an HIV/AIDS crisis. There are also more than 100,000 refugees who fled to neighboring countries, many of them Muslims trying to escape religious persecution.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    For more on the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, we get two perspectives. Mike Jendrzejczyk is the Washington director of Human Rights Watch Asia. And Thomas Vallely is a political analyst in the Asia program at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. For the past ten years, he has been a consultant to the United Nations focusing on Myanmar.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Well, Mike Jendrzejczyk, why'd they let her go?

  • MIKE JENDRZEJCZYK:

    Well, first of all, it's a tribute to her courage and determination that she is free today. I think as your piece suggested, Ray, the Burmese government is looking now not just for legitimacy but for resumption of at least some forms of international aid that has been largely cut off since 1988.

    The economy is in a state of collapse. Many of Burma's close neighbors in Southeast Asia and Japan are increasingly unhappy with their economic mismanagement and the outflow of tens of thousands of refugees. So I think the step today was a deliberate, calculated step but it's not clear what it's going to lead to.

    And this is I think the remaining question we're left with: Is the Burmese government willing to take additional steps, far more reaching steps than freeing Aung San Suu Kyi, as welcome as that is, that would put the government on an irreversible course towards democracy and the resumption of civilian government and basic human rights?

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Thomas Vallely, not only why did they let her out in your view but why now?

  • THOMAS VALLELY:

    Well, I think that first I share Mike's overview there and your piece's overview. I think her tactics finally outmaneuvered and overwhelmed the ignorance of the military regime that could not create a viable alternative.

    And their ignorance actually, I think, strengthened her tactics, and I think that what has happened today is probably not reversible but I don't see that it will… I don't smell speed here. I think it will take some time to move ahead. I think both her comments today were very positive, but Mr. Razali's comments were also positive in the sense that he alludes to that there's a lot of things that haven't been made public yet, Ray.

    We don't know what they are. He also says that it will probably take a couple of years before there is democracy in Burma. And I think it will probably take 20 more years before we solve the economic problems. But certainly it's a great victory for the intervention of the U.N., a great victory for the people of Burma and Mr. Razali and…should be very proud of himself.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Well, it sounds like you're not entirely confident that this is the break that Myanmar's friends around the world have been waiting for. We've seen this cycle of being released and then being re-jailed or re-confined again. Could this lead — if Aung San Suu Kyi is not quiet enough — to another cycle of suppression of her voice?

  • THOMAS VALLELY:

    I don't think that will happen because I think this is so much different than the last time that the military is weaker than they were half a dozen years ago when they released her the first time. I think they did this for their own survival. I think they did it because they fear the new world.

    The last time they let her out, you know, Suharto was still in power in Indonesia and they thought they could have a regime like he had. They see these things crumbling all around them. And I think what Mr. Razali did was he painted a picture for the military of reality. He also painted a picture for Aung San Suu Kyi of what continued stalemate would bring to Burma. And in crafting these two paintings, I think he broke the stalemate.

    I don't think it's reversible. I don't know if the world knows what medicine to give Burma to get it to move forward. They certainly are going to focus first on the governance. Will they honor the elections — what the constitution will be — what the power sharing arrangements will be. They can't forget the economy, which I don't think the world knows how to fix yet.

  • MIKE JENDRZEJCZYK:

    Actually, I think Ambassador Razali wanted more out of this visit. I think he wanted the release of all 1,000 or more political prisoners – many of them activists — at least 17 of them elected members of parliament from 1990. What he got was something less than that. But I think what he's counting on is that both Aung San Suu Kyi and the military government are committed to continuing their secret talks, committed to continuing the dialogue.

    This is where we're going see some testing on both sides. If Aung San Suu Kyi starts traveling around the country rallying her supporters, trying to reopen many of the township offices of the NLD that are still closed, this could be considered very threatening by the government; they may not arrest her, but they might start rounding up and detaining her supporters again. But I think what they're counting on is they know she has a stake in continuing these secret talks that have been underway for nearly two years.

    What she said today interestingly is it's time to move the talks beyond the confidence-building stage to talk about the core issues like a transition to democracy, perhaps new elections, which is what I think Ambassador Razali was hinting at. But interestingly the Burmese government today didn't say anything about the talks moving to this next stage, so I think there still is a lot of maneuvering going on behind the scenes and I think without continued international pressure, it's not clear what's going to happen in the next coming weeks and months.

    So I think, for example, a decision by the U.S. or the EU to lift any of the existing sanctions against Burma would now be counterproductive. I think there has to be new opportunities for dialogue and engagement, absolutely, but I think to in any way lift some of the sanctions now in place would be premature. At the same time some governments including the European Union and Japan and even the U.S., have said they are interested in providing humanitarian assistance, especially for the very desperate problem of HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment.

    Clearly I think there is room for providing such assistance. Aung San Suu Kyi herself has said that would be welcome primarily through non-governmental organizations and U.N. agencies. And I think that could be a confidence-building step in itself if the government and the democratic opposition could start working together on specific urgent humanitarian problems like HIV/AIDS.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Thomas Vallely, why don't you speak to Mike Jendrzejczyk's point about lifting the sanctions, because tonight in the view of some people who cheered the sanctions when they were laid on, this might pointed to as a… an example of sanctions that worked where in many other countries they didn't. She's free tonight.

  • THOMAS VALLELY:

    Certainly in… I don't think anyone is… and certainly not Aung San Suu Kyi and certainly not the U.S. government is going to take her strongest card away in the middle of negotiations so I don't think there's any question that immediately sanctions are not going to be… are not going to be taken off. I think a lot of the sanctions in strengthening her… I think the whole argument — do sanctions work?

    Sanctions worked here because after the financial crisis of a few years ago, no money went to Burma in any way. And it was a double hit. Her strategy and their failure came together to make the sanctions work here. And sanctions did work here. I don't think there's anyone going to take those away until there's more progress. And I think that there will have to be progress on some form of a road map for sanctions to be lifted.

  • MIKE JENDRZEJCZYK:

    Japan is playing a key role here. Japan has offered — actually decided to provide 29 million dollars in a bilateral aid program to help refurbish a hydroelectric power plant but the decision was made last April and the money has not yet been expended. I was just in Tokyo a couple weeks ago-I think Japanese policy makers understand this very clearly — that it's important to offer the possibility of resumption of some aid as an incentive but not give it out too soon.

    It's also clear, too, from talking to business people in Japan and elsewhere in the region that the possibility of going and investing there is just not very attractive now to private investors. The level of corruption is very high. The role of the military in controlling the economy of course is a serious problem, and one the government is not yet ready to confront.

    I think the Burmese rulers today in this decision are once again taking a calculated risk that by releasing Aung San Suu Kyi, hoping that she won't stir up too much trouble, perhaps, just perhaps, they can convince some investment to come back in and eventually perhaps for some sanctions to be lifted — but only in a gradual and incremental way.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Well, Thomas Vallely, maybe you could talk a little bit about why Americans should spend a couple of minutes thinking about Myanmar tonight. The regime there spent much of the last 40 years trying to seal off the country from the rest of the world and in many ways it appears they've succeeded. What's in it for the United States and for other democracies around the world to see this country succeed?

  • THOMAS VALLELY:

    There is no, Ray, there's no great strategic interest of the United States in Vietnam… I mean in Burma in any sense. It's not a very important place. Its economy is tiny. What's important is that this action today, this breaking of a stalemate today, has the potential of alleviating what might have been a major humanitarian crisis.

    And I think part of that… what was looming, this complete failed state, people too hungry, no electricity, no cooking oil, I think the breaking of this stalemate gives more hope to these people so that they can avoid a disaster, a famine or something we don't want to even think about. So I think that's why Americans should think about it because Americans transcend nationalism and look towards – you know — the human race. We're trying to get these people fed and back on their feet. It's going to take a great deal.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Quickly add to Thomas Vallely's view?

  • MIKE JENDRZEJCZYK:

    One thing the U.S. does have an interest is controlling narcotics and the trafficking of narcotics from Burma. The State Department said this year they cannot certify that Burma is in fact doing enough to control narcotics. I also think the U.S. can take a very important symbolic step in the coming months. We don't have an ambassador in Rangoon. The U.S. only has a charges de affairs. One way we might be able to support this continuing process is to at least consider sending a full-scale ambassador. That's something I would hope the Congress and the administration would consider doing.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Mike Jendrzejczyk, Thomas Vallely. Thank you both.