This article originally appeared in the Winter 1996 issue of the Harvard International Review.

Between Fear and Hope: The Struggle For Democratic Reform in Burma

You have written and spoken of the need to liberate oneself from fear, and of how individuals such as your father and Mahatma Gandhi strove against fear and great odds to work for national liberation and democracy. How would you describe the climate in Burma now—is it a climate of fear and uncertainty, or one of hope and confidence in change to come? What reforms do you seek from the State Law and Order Restoration Council in the upcoming months?

The climate in Burma is a mixture of both fear and hope. There is still a lot of fear, and, of course, the future is uncertain. But many of us are ready to work for what we want, so there is also confidence and hope. What we would like to see now is positive steps toward true democratization, including the initiation of dialogue, the release of political prisoners, and the reestablishment of the right of political parties to function freely. There has to be an acknowledgment that the people want democracy and that they have a right to be involved in the democratization of the country. Dialogue is the first step and will determine how the democratization process will proceed.In addition to dialogue, the government must indicate its goodwill and willingness to abide by the UN resolution on Burma of 1994. There are a number of clauses in the resolution that spell out what is necessary to prove that they have been genuine in their progress toward democratization, including the release of all political prisoners. Since my release, no other political prisoners have been freed. Some came out of prison but only because their terms had expired, and there are still large numbers of political prisoners all over Burma. Another clause in the resolution speaks about the freedom of democratic parties. At the moment, there are many restrictions that prevent the democratic parties from functioning effectively. I think the international community should do everything it can to bring about the implementation of the 1994 United Nations resolution on Burma. The content of the resolution is very good, but it has not been implemented. We would like the international community to focus on this. If countries are going to give aid or another form of political or economic support to the government, it should be made very strictly conditional on how much progress continues to be made toward democratization and the implementation of the terms of the resolution.

With the State Law and Order Restoration Council planning to discuss the revision of the constitution in the National Convention, do you foresee having any personal role in this process? Will the revision of the constitution make a positive contribution toward democratic change?

The National Convention in its present form is not what you would consider a democratic convention, because none of the delegates are free to say what they want. Everything that they voice is censored beforehand. There is no process by which the will of the people can be made effective through this National Convention.

During the years since the sweeping electoral triumph of your National League for Democracy in 1990, the party has been debilitated by the arrest of its leaders and the persecution of its supporters. What measures have you taken since your release to strengthen the party, restore internal cohesion, and reestablish the grassroots support it enjoyed in the late 1980s?

Simply by reorganizing, the party can reestablish its strength and support. What we do within our own party really has nothing to do with the government. According to the Party Registration Act, it’s up to us whom we decide to have in the party and in what position. Yet members of the National League for Democracy have been subjected to all kinds of repression and intimidation. Many regulations stop the organization from functioning effectively as a party. In response to those restrictions, we are starting by reconsolidating our forces. The party is getting stronger and more cohesive each day. The role of the National League for Democracy is the role of any political party in a democracy; you cannot have a democracy without political parties so it is critical that they be allowed to function without restraint. The National League for Democracy, of course, is not the only party that should be allowed to function in Burma. We also want other political parties to be able to function freely and effectively, and we are currently in contact with other parties as well as many other groups within the democratic movement that are not political parties.

The role of the National League for Democracy is the role of any political party in a democracy; you cannot have a democracy without political parties so it is critical that they be allowed to function without restraint.

 Mass demonstrations characterized the democracy movement of 1988 and 1989. Should the military regime continue to be inflexible, what kind of popular response would you expect or support? What are the prospects that the government will take the steps you advocate— the establishment of dialogue, release of political prisoners, and end of restrictions on political parties?

The possibility of mass demonstrations depends on the circumstances at hand. Of course, we are not going to say what we will do at a certain time. That is not the way one works in politics. In politics you do not lay out your cards on the table when the other side has not produced any at all. In terms of prospects for reform, we feel very strongly that we will succeed in attaining democracy and that in the end all these problems will be settled at the negotiating table. And the sooner we get there, the better for the country, because the economy of Burma is in a terrible state. The people are suffering not only from this economic distress but also from a deprivation of the basic rights to which they are entitled as human beings. In the end, we are confident that we will get democracy. Every delay in achieving this end means more suffering for the Burmese people.

Note from the editor

Alternating house arrest, military detention, and the campaign trail, Aung San Suu Kyi has been a leading figure of Myanmar politics for almost three decades. In 1988, her trip to Myanmar (also known as Burma) to visit her ailing mother caught her between the rise of a new military junta and the protests for democracy of her home country. Following the nullified electoral victory of the party she founded, the National League for Democracy, she was placed under house arrest in 1990. She would live in this state for 15 of the 21 years that followed, despite continuous outcry by the United Nations for her release. During this time, she became an icon for Myanmar and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, garnering widespread popularity both in her home country and abroad. Released in 2010 amidst attempts by the military junta to begin a slow democratization process, she has become an active politician once again. While the future of Myanmar remains uncertain, this interview from the winter of 1996 offers a window into the mind of a woman who has brought the Myanmar people’s plight into the international eye and will continue to be a part of its shaky democratization.