Aung San Suu Kyi became a worldwide symbol of freedom and democracy after spending 15 years of her life under house arrest. Since her release in 2010, she has gone from dissident to politician, and has spearheaded the drive for legal and political reform in Myanmar as leader of opposition party, the National League for Democracy, and Chairperson of the Committee for the Rule of Law and Tranquillity.
This IBA interview was conducted in Nay Pyi Taw, where Aung Sang Suu Kyi was hosting an IBAHRI workshop with the aim of promoting discussion on the need to reform current rules governing Myanmar’s legal profession.
In the interview she discusses issues including the importance of the rule of law and the key challenges facing the legal profession in Myanmar.
RL Rebecca Lowe
AS Aung San Suu Kyi
RL I’m Rebecca Lowe from the IBA and joining me in Naypyidaw, Myanmar, is Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who became a worldwide symbol of freedom and democracy after spending 15 years of her life under house arrest. Since her release in 2010, she has gone from dissident to politician, and has spearheaded the drive for legal and political reform as leader of opposition party National League for Democracy and Chairperson of the Committee for the Rule of Law and Tranquillity.
Daw Suu, thank you very much for joining us. Now, you’re here in Naypyidaw with us today to talk about the importance of the rule of law, the importance of reforming the legal profession. First, could you outline the key challenges facing the legal profession in Myanmar, and how you feel that you’re going to address those challenges?
AS Well, there are so many challenges, starting with legal education. For many, many years legal education was the poor relation of the education system, because emphasis was placed on such subjects as medicine, engineering, and so on, and we had this rather peculiar system whereby the marks that you get at the matriculation examination decide which faculty you could join.
So those with the highest marks could join the medical profession, and then the second highest went in for engineering, and so on. And right at the bottom was legal studies. Those with the minimum marks were allowed to go in for law. So it started with that, that it was assumed that only the poorest students would go in for law, which meant that the brighter ones did not want to do in for law, because it was as though they were advertising themselves as the least capable.
So it started with that problem. And of course there were many others, the kind of problems that you would find in any authoritarian state.
RL So you think that’s at the core of all reform: education. That’s how you go about…
AS No, I wouldn't say that’s at the core, but it’s one of the basics.
RL Because I just wonder, it takes a long time to create a strong rule of law, a powerful, independent judiciary. How do you go about creating that culture, creating that spirit of independence?
AS Creating a culture takes time, but there are certain things that could be done through legislation. For example, if we want to establish an independent judiciary, we’ll have to amend the Constitution. Under the present Constitution, the judiciary is not independent of the executive. So there are things that could be done quickly, if people are prepared to cooperate.
Which is to say, all those who are in a position to influence whether or not the Constitution is amended will have to do their part in making sure that the necessary amendments are put through quickly.
RL And yet the government and the military have shown very little inclination so far to reform the Constitution. How important is it that these reforms take place, and how confident are you that they can take place by the elections next year?
AS The reforms are very important, they’re not just for the elections. We have been taking about rule of law, and I’ve made the point that unless the Constitution is amended, we will not have an independent judiciary, and that goes beyond just the next elections. That is to do with the future of the country.
And you talk about establishing a culture of rule of law, I usually talk about a culture of democracy, and there are many, many elements involved. And establishing such a culture takes time, but you have to start somewhere, and as you pointed out, the government at this time, and the military, certainly do not show any inclination to amend the Constitution.
But what is very, very encouraging for us is the fact that the people understand the need to amend the Constitution.
RL Because there was a survey of five million people, wasn’t there, saying that they wanted…
AS It wasn’t a survey, it was a signature campaign. We invited the public to come and put the signatures to the amendment clause, which makes our Constitution about the most rigid in the world. And this was not quite like an ordinary referendum, because it was not – to begin with, it was not like a secret vote. Everybody knew who was supporting this movement. And that still requires courage, at this time.
RL Some believe that the focus on the Constitution and political reforms is distracting people from other concerns, other very real concerns in Myanmar, such as human rights issues and abuses in the ethnic states and…
AS But how can you separate human rights from rule of law? How can you separate human rights from law and order? And how can you separate human rights from politics?
RL So you don’t believe that there’s a distraction from issues in Rahkine state, in Kachin state?
AS It’s not that emphasis on the need to amend the Constitution, or the need for rule of law is a distraction from things like human rights. I think those who do not want to amend the Constitution are trying to distract people by making them think that the human rights issue is totally divorced from the issue of constitutional amendment, which of course it is not.
RL You have advocated for forgiveness, for reconciliation, rather than retribution for past crimes. Others suggest that this might be a false distinction; that it’s not about retribution, but it is about accountability, it is about justice, for past crimes over the last five decades.
What do you mean when you talk about reconciliation, and do you think that this is genuinely what is right for the population of Myanmar?
AS I think our people agree that national reconciliation is absolutely necessary. I don’t talk about forgiveness, forgiveness is a personal thing. You can’t force people to forgive. But people can agree to a certain course, even if they don’t forgive in their hearts, but they can agree not to take the kind of actions that will have an adverse effect on national reconciliation. National reconciliation is a political process. We are thinking of it as a political process, as an agreement between different factions to pursue a certain path in the name of peace, in the name of unity, even if it means that you have to forego your pound of flesh.
RL You don't think impunity can cause further injustice down the line?
AS We are not talking about impunity or punishment, we are talking about national reconciliation. I think we have to start with that by deciding what is necessary in order to achieve national reconciliation. Things like impunity or no impunity, or revenge or no revenge, that follows on the discussions with regard to what we really need in order to achieve national reconciliation. And this is not a decision I can make alone.
RL A final question: you said in your second Reith lecture in 2011 that you and your party, the NLD, could be described as dissidents, because you ‘serve the truth, the real aim of life’. Now you’re a politician, do you see your role as different? Do you feel like you need to compromise any of that truth now?
AS No, I don't think we compromised with regard to principles when we were dissidents, and I don't think we’re compromising now. But we did compromise also when we were dissidents, to a certain extent. For example, national reconciliation was always one of the main elements of our party policy. We always said that one of our most important aims was national reconciliation. But what is interesting is that after I came into parliament, and after we broadened the base of our political activities – because previously we had to work outside the parliament as it were, but now we work both in and out of the legislature – by broadening the base of our political work, our efforts at national reconciliation became more widely known.
And then, I think, people started to reveal that they didn’t quite understand what we meant by national reconciliation. All along, they never understood. And particularly at a time when they thought that there was hardly any hope of achieving it, they didn’t take much interest in what we meant by it. But when we have now arrived at a position where we could achieve national reconciliation, then it’s interesting that some have shown that they don’t really want it after all.
RL And are you hopeful you can achieve that? Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said he was a ‘prisoner of hope’ – are you a prisoner of hope?
AS I’ve never believed in hope. When people ask me if I hope for this or that, I say I don’t believe in hope, I only believe in endeavour. You work. You work to get what you want. You don’t just sit and hope for it.
RL Daw Suu, thank you very much for your time.
AS Thank you.