Aung San Suu Kyi: Undiminished by years of house arrest

Aung San Suu Kyi speaks to John Simpson

Until Saturday, Burmese democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi was arguably the world's most famous prisoner.

Now she is free. And in the sweltering heat in the headquarters of her party, the National League for Democracy - which according to the military government in Burma no longer exists - she gave the BBC her first face-to-face television interview for seven years.

The years of imprisonment have not changed her. She remains as cool and articulate and outspoken as ever.

There is no question of her having agreed to any restrictions on her freedom of speech or action in return for being released. She stressed that now she had been released from house arrest, this would anyway be illegal.

The main question, now that she is free, remains the future of Burma's military government. Ms Suu Kyi did not shy away from it.

Did Burma face a velvet revolution - peaceful and non-violent, as in the former Czechoslovakia in 1989 - or something fiercer?

Start Quote

For me, 'revolution' simply means radical change”

End Quote Aung San Suu Kyi

"It would be nice if it could happen," she answered. "We would like a non-violent, peaceful revolution."

But she did not associate "velvet" with the military: a hint, perhaps, that it would not be so easy.

Perhaps reflecting that the military government might well react to all this with anger, she went on: "By revolution I mean a great change for the better."

Might saying this get her into trouble with the authorities, I asked?

"I don't quite know how they will interpret the word 'revolution'", she replied. "For me, 'revolution' simply means radical change."

India criticised

But radical change of any kind is precisely what the military government wants to stop. Might her words get her sent back to a further period of house arrest?

The danger does not frighten her.

"It's always possible," she said. "My attitude is, do as much as I can while I'm free. And if I'm arrested I'll still do as much as I can."

Aung San Suu Kyi

  • Born 1945, daughter of Burma's independence hero General Aung San, who was assassinated in 1947
  • 1960: Leaves Burma and is later educated at Oxford University
  • 1988: Returns to care for sick mother and is caught up in revolt against then-dictator Ne Win
  • 1989: Put under house arrest as Burmese junta declares martial law
  • 1990: NLD wins election; military disregards result
  • 1991: Wins Nobel Peace Prize
  • 1995: Released from house arrest, but movements restricted
  • 2000: Near continuous period of house arrest begins
  • Sept 2007: First public appearance since 2003, greeting protesting Buddhist monks
  • November 2010: NLD boycotts first election in 20 years and is disbanded; house arrest ends

Ms Suu Kyi was outspoken, too, about countries in the region which had kept silent about last week's highly questionable election here: India, which described the elections as "free and fair", and China, which makes no criticism of Burma at all.

She was not surprised but she was saddened, she said, that the plight of the Burmese people did not concern them as much as they might have hoped.

She questioned whether those in Burma who were responsible for selling the country's resources to China and elsewhere had done so in a responsible way.

Opposite her party's headquarters, several dozen plain-clothes security men had established themselves, some of them taking photographs of everyone going in and out.

Followed on foot

The government's surveillance of Ms Suu Kyi and her party colleagues is remarkably intensive.

They are often followed on foot, and on the motor-scooters which only the security police are allowed to drive in Rangoon.

She would, she said, act cautiously.

She knew they could well be bugging her rooms and eavesdropping on her conversations, so she would not be foolhardy. But she would continue to give interviews to international organisations like the BBC.

Might she one day be the country's leader, I asked?

She was certain that Burma would achieve democracy one day, but that did not mean she would be president.

Start Quote

The Burmese military authorities are undoubtedly going to find that life with her on the outside... is going to be a good deal harder than it was when she was a prisoner”

End Quote

"I don't know how long it will take," she said. "But the people will decide."

New to mobiles

In the long years she has been under house arrest, the world has changed. The internet and the mobile phone have revolutionised the lives of billions around the world - including in Burma.

Ms Suu Kyi was allowed to use neither gadget while she was a prisoner.

When she made her first appearance on Saturday and saw the thousands of mobiles held up towards her by her supporters who wanted to take her photograph, she was taken aback.

She was surprised when she first handled the mobile which someone gave her to phone her son Kim in Bangkok.

She had seen them in photographs, but this one seemed so small and inadequate, and she found it hard to know how to listen to it and talk into it.

But, she said, smiling, it worked perfectly well.

For all her coolness and gentle demeanour, Aung San Suu Kyi is a very tough politician.

The Burmese military authorities are undoubtedly going to find that life with her on the outside, able to use 21st Century means of communication, is going to be a good deal harder than it was when she was a prisoner.

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Burma's Transition

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