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Interview: Straight talk from Aung San Suu Kyi

Famed dissident dishes on the junta, tiny cell phones and how Burmese need to help themselves.

Aung San Suu Kyi Burma Myanmar
Burma's democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi poses for a portrait at the National League for Democracy (NLD) headquarters in Rangoon, Burma, on Dec. 8, 2010. (Getty Images)

Aung San Suu Kyi, the revered leader of Burma’s democracy movement, was released from house arrest in November after more than 15 years. Elected prime minister in 1990, but denied her title and confined off-and-on ever since, the Nobel Peace Laureate is considered by some to be a Gandhi-caliber icon. In this interview, Suu Kyi talks about her willingness to cooperate with the junta, her eagerness to get an email account and her plans for Burma's future.

Bernard Krisher, publisher of The Cambodia Daily and The Burma Daily, first interviewed Suu Kyi in 2000 in Rangoon. This month, Krisher conducted a follow-up phone interview with her, the text of which appears here exclusively.

GP: Now that you have been released, are you willing to cooperate with the regime?

Aung San Suu Kyi: I think I've always said I was willing to cooperate with the regime. I don't think this is something new.

You won the election in 1990 and the regime did not allow you to take power and then you were under house arrest and confinement for many years. Now that you are free, how do you feel? What should be your relationship to the junta now?

Our relationship to the junta has always been based on what we can best do for the country. That is how we decide what our relationship with the junta should be and it doesn’t makes any difference how long they kept me under detention. These personal considerations don't come into the picture at all.

What you would like to do in the future? What are you plans, what is your agenda?

Yes, of course we have an agenda but the most important thing at the moment is for the whole world to understand that Burma needs a process of democratization. We would like all of our supporters to work towards this. And not just our supporters but the international community and the United Nations.

When I met you the last time in 2000, I asked how can you survive this? You said through humor. After all that has happened, do you still feel that humor is the best way to survive?

Humor is one of the best ingredients of survival. We have a lot of it around in the NLD [our party, the National League for Democracy] and I don't think we could have survived without it, considering that so many of us have been in and out of prison so frequently. But when we sit around and talk and do our work there is a lot of laughter. It is part of our survival apparatus.

Are you able to use email now?

I don’t have email yet. We just had the telephone line in the NLD office reconnected after eight years. We'll have to wait a little longer before we graduate to the email stage yet.

I suspect you are talking on a cell phone. Have you used a cell phone before?

I only used a cell phone for the first time after I was released. I had difficulty coping with it because it seemed so small and insubstantial.

There have been leaks of diplomatic cables indicating that the U.S. government believes that the Burmese regime is pursuing a nuclear weapons program with North Korea’s involvement. Are the people of Burma aware of this and what is your opinion?

I am not aware of this in any detail but I have heard about it on the radio.

What is the best way for foreign governments or aid groups to help Burma? What does Burma need and what is the best way to help?

The best way to help Burma is to empower the people of Burma, to help us have enough self-confidence to obtain what we want for ourselves. For the moment, our people are frightened and lack confidence they have any power. The best way people can help us is to encourage us to help ourselves.

How can non-governmental organizations help Burma?

When they give humanitarian aid, it should be given in such a way that it empowers people instead of increasing their dependency.

As you told me the last time “to teach them how to fish rather than giving them fish”?

I've gone one step further. Apart from teaching them how to fish, you need to create an environment where they can use their fishing skills. That is to say, it is no use teaching them how to fish and then leaving them at the top of a mountain where they can’t use their skills. You have got to make sure that they will be able to use their skills and that their skills are suited to the environment.

Do you intend to run for office in the next election?

It’s too early to reply because it depends on the conditions under which the next elections are held. We can’t predict what will happen in the next five years.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/asia/101220/interview-burma-myanmar-aung-san-suu-kyi