Skip to main content

Myanmar's Suu Kyi unveils her vision for her homeland

From Fred Pleitgen, CNN
Click to play
Suu Kyi: People need to be empowered
  • She was pleased to see so many younger people had joined her movement
  • She wants change where citizens feel empowered, she says
  • She was eager to hear about technological advances in the world
  • She wants dialog with the junta and is OK with the U.S.

Yangon, Myanmar (CNN) -- It was stifling hot inside the small, stark headquarters of the National League for Democracy, the party led by freed pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi.

Suu Kyi wore her trademark shirt and a Burmese sarong known as a lyongi, her hair adorned with the flowers that have come to symbolize defiance in her homeland that has been under tyrannical military rule since 1962.

On this day, she also wore a red AIDS ribbon. She had visited patients at an AIDS clinic in Yangon, the former capital of Myanmar that was known as Rangoon. Lack of treatment for HIV sufferers remains an unspoken problem in the authoritarian South Asian country.

A new role for Aung San Suu Kyi?

Suu Kyi has been free for almost a week after spending 15 of the past 21 years in detention.

Suu Kyi: Need a new military mentality
Aung San Suu Kyi talks to CNN
'The Lady' of Myanmar speaks out
Aung San Suu Kyi's future plans

Her outward appearance did not give away the woman who had endured the hardship of confinement. She looked young for her 65 years and said she maintained her sanity through meditation.

But the lines on her face were borne from sorrow.

From the grief that a woman feels when she is unable to see her husband one last time before his death. The grief of a woman who has tried for more than two decades to bring change to her homeland.

The daughter of a Burmese independence hero, Suu Kyi was quickly embraced as a leader in the late 1980s after she returned home to be with her ailing mother. The National League for Democracy won the 1990 elections by a landslide but the regime did not recognize the results.

She had been detained for that vote just as she was for the last election on November 14, which was criticized in all corners as being a sham. She said she doesn't believe the new assembly will be accountable to the people.

"One of the reasons why we decided not to take part in the elections was precisely because we didn't believe that there was going to be any major change."

With memories of a Nobel Peace Prize awarded her two decades ago, she remains optimistic that with the help of her followers, she can still exact reform. She said she was pleased to see so many younger people had joined her movement. She was uplifted by their fresh energy, ebullience.

And, she was eager to hear about all the changes that have taken place in the world during her time out of the public eye, especially about technological advances. Smart phones, Skype, Facebook, Twitter.

She even liked her own dogged campaign for change to the IT revolution.

"The IT revolution has meant tremendous changes, and significant changes for the whole world, so what we mean is enough change within the country to make people feel like they've got on to a new and better state, and that's what I meant by revolution," she said of her efforts.

She said she envisions a Myanmar -- which she and others opposed to the regime call by its former name of Burma -- where progress goes hand in hand with accountability and where the citizens feel empowered legally and constitutionally to shape the course of its future.

"I want the people to be more empowered and I want them to feel more empowered," Suu Kyi said. "I want them to feel that it is they who will decide what the destiny of the country is; that they will have the proper means to shape the destiny of the country."

She struck a conciliatory note with Myanmar's generals but did not excuse them from accepting responsibility for the nation's current state -- one that is impoverished, underdeveloped and isolated from the global community.

"Of course we'd like economic progress but I think that has to be balanced by what I would think of as accountability. Progress has to go hand in hand with accountability."

She would like to see the kinds of economic leaps that China made but without other aspects of the communist-ruled country.

"I think we would like more respect for human rights in Burma than at present you can see going on in China," she said.

She said she was not opposed to the United States engaging in diplomacy with the military junta but qualified her position.

"There are lot of people who say that now that the U.S. has decided to engage with the military regime, they have turned their back on us. I don't think like that."

I think engagement is a good thing. But I don't want them to go into engagement wearing rose-colored glasses. I want them to be very practical about it."

The other side of the reform coin involves dialog with the generals.

Perhaps the military leaders, she said, have not engaged in conversation because "you don't have dialogue in the military. You have commands."

"I think perhaps some of them don't quite understand what we mean by dialogue," she said. "What we mean by dialogue is: 'let's talk to each other. We'll tell you what we want. You tell us what you want. We come to some sort of compromise. I don't think this kind of exchange is something with which the military, in general, are familiar and I think that has been our greatest problem."

But in the give-and-take with the junta, there is one area, she said, in which she will not compromise.

"The release of political prisoners certainly," she said.

"And I don't think actually if we get to the negotiating table, the military will say we don't believe in the release of political prisoners. I don't think it works like that. That's one of my top priorities."

She knows that for now, the junta has let her be. Not that they've changed their opinion of her, but maybe, they are waiting to see how things unfold.

But Suu Kyi lives every day with the thought that at any moment, she could be arrested again.

"It's always a possibility," she said. "After all they've arrested me several times in the past."

But she said, she can't dwell on that. She has a lot of work to do.

CNN's Moni Basu contributed to this report.

Part of complete coverage on
China, India key to Myanmar reform
Activist Aung San Suu Kyi has made a passionate plea to build democracy in Myanmar, but do China and India hold key to change?
Release a catalyst for change?
Nyi Nyi Aung learned the news just before sunrise Saturday: the woman who has inspired him in his two-decade-long struggle was free.
Suu Kyi: Symbol of hope
She is small but only in physical stature. Aung San Suu Kyi is the very embodiment of Myanmar's long struggle for democracy.
Myanmar's recent history
Myanmar, which is also known as Burma, has been under military rule since 1962.
Cyclone exposed secrets
Amid the destruction of Nargis, CNN was able to see firsthand the spirit of Myanmar's people.
Junta's grip on economy
Analysts say "bad governance" has led to the development of two parallel economies.