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Interview with Aung San Suu Kyi; Interview with Bernard Henri-Levy

Aired September 21, 2012 - 15:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Hello again, everyone, I'm Christiane Amanpour, and welcome to the weekend edition of our program. We begin with Aung San Suu Kyi, one of the world's most revered advocates for democracy. This year, she was finally freed and able to collect the Nobel Peace Prize that she'd won back in 1991.

She has spent almost 20 years under house arrest in Myanmar, also known as Burma, isolated from the world and from her family by the brutal and oppressive military regime there. During her captivity, Suu Kyi lost her husband to cancer and she was estranged from her two young sons, who were forbidden to visit her.

But in the last year, Suu Kyi's long struggle has finally paid off. The country's new president, Thein Sein, freed her from detention and instituted a series of economic and political reforms. She won a seat in parliament and now Suu Kyi, the icon, has become Suu Kyi, the politician. She's stepped off the pedestal and into the fray.

On Wednesday, Aung San Suu Kyi was in Washington, meeting with President Obama and his dog, Bo, and as you look at this picture, bear in mind that for the whole time she was under house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi refused to get a dog for company because, she said, it wouldn't be fair for a dog not to run free.

She received a hero's welcome at the U.S. Congress, where she accepted a Congressional Gold Medal. The ceremony was also broadcast at home in Myanmar, the first time that the state broadcaster had aired footage of Suu Kyi overseas. Aung San Suu Kyi has just returned to New York, where she lived and worked briefly 40 years ago, and I caught up with her in a break from her whirlwind tour.


AMANPOUR: Aung San Suu Kyi, thank you for joining me.


AMANPOUR: I see you in these amazing public events now, accepting finally the Congressional Gold Medal, the Nobel Peace Prize. You get a hero's welcome. You looked visibly pained when people are standing up in these prolonged standing Os. Is it weird for you?

SUU KYI: No, it's -- I appreciate it very much. But sometimes I feel a little embarrassed.

AMANPOUR: Why embarrassed?

SUU KYI: It doesn't seem right for anybody to get so much attention.

AMANPOUR: And yet what you've done has been so dramatic.

What do you think is your greatest achievement? If you had to sum it up, what would you say has brought you these Congressional Gold Medal, the Nobel prize?

SUU KYI: I don't think it's yet time to say what my greatest achievement. I think I have received these prizes for the efforts I've made to reach the goal that all my country men and women would like to reach.

AMANPOUR: There's still some way to go. Obviously, it's a dramatically different situation. A few years ago, there's no way you would have been able to sit here.

Do you call now for the end of sanctions against Burma, Myanmar? Do you think the export sanction, particularly, should be lifted now?

SUU KYI: You mean the import into the United States?

AMANPOUR: Exactly, yes --


SUU KYI: Well, I think it should be lifted now. It can't really be lifted yet, but there can be a waiver. And I would very much support such a move, because I think it -- it's time we gave our people a chance to show what they can do.

And I've said before that we can't depend on external support forever to achieve our own ends. We'll always appreciate what our friends do, and I hope that they will continue to do whatever is necessary. But we must also take responsibility for our own destiny.

AMANPOUR: So it's time to let the minerals and the gas and all the riches be able to be imported into this country?

SUU KYI: Yes, provided there's transparency and accountability.

AMANPOUR: What about political prisoners, the president announced an amnesty a short while ago. Are you satisfied that this includes the political prisoners, enough of the kind of people you need to see released?

SUU KYI: No, not all the people on our list have been released, and there are other lists, which are, I think, which are probably a little more -- a little longer than our. So I think there's still others waiting to be released.

AMANPOUR: Do you believe it will happen?

SUU KYI: I think so. I think it should happen as soon as possible.

AMANPOUR: And you're on the wavelength with the president and the government on this issue?

SUU KYI: I don't know what it means to be on the same wavelength with them, but I think there are many people in the government who agree that political prisoners should be released.

AMANPOUR: You're now working with the former general; Thein Sein is now the president of your country. These are the people who prevented you from seeing your husband, who kept your children separated from you, not to mention the oppression in your country itself.

Tell me what it is like to now have to be a politician and work with this group of people.

SUU KYI: I've never thought that what they did to me was personal anyway. It is politics. And if you decide to go into politics, you have to be prepared to put up with this kind of -- with these kind of problems. I like a lot of the generals. I'm rather inclined to liking people.

AMANPOUR: That would sound pretty dramatic for people to hear, that you like the generals.

SUU KYI: Well, I've always got on with people in the army. You mustn't forget that my father was the founder of the Burmese army. And this is why I have a soft spot for them, even though I don't like what they do. That's different from not liking them.

AMANPOUR: I'm stunned.

SUU KYI: Are you really?

AMANPOUR: Yes. I'm stunned.

SUU KYI: I think it's perfectly natural for me to feel this way.

AMANPOUR: Do you believe that your relationship with the president is crucial, not just your personal relationship, but your political relationship, is crucial to enable a full and proper transition from military dictatorship to a full democracy?

SUU KYI: I think it's always a little dangerous to make this kind of work a personal occupation. I think we should look at it more from a -- from an objective point of view. I think it is important that the executives, the legislature and the judiciary that we're trying to develop work together to strengthen democratic institutions and practices.

AMANPOUR: And yet I know you don't want to take this sort of personal, I suppose, not responsibility, but you don't want to frame it so much in the personal. But the truth of the matter is, it is about you. You are the person that made this happen. It might not have happened without somebody like --


SUU KYI: Oh, I don't think so. I think without many, many others, it would not have happened, the people of my country. And the people of the United States have supported us, the United States and the administration. (Inaudible) got to really say thank you to the U.S. Congress while I'm about it, because they've been so supported over the years and others around the world.

So I don't -- in a sense, I think one must take responsibility for one's actions and one's decisions. But one should never take -- one should never assume that everything that happens for the good is achieved by one's self alone.

AMANPOUR: Obviously during house arrest, I assume, in order to survive and get through it, you had to be pretty stubborn. You had to be pretty uncompromising about what you were doing and what you were struggling for.

Now you've spoken about how you need to compromise. Describe that transition.

SUU KYI: Well, there's never been a transition. I was never given a chance to compromise. You cannot compromise unless people talk to you. Since there was never any kind of dialogue, never any kind of consultation with us, with the forces for democracy, we were never given a chance to compromise.

People keep saying I've changed. I used to be confrontational. But I'm -- I haven't changed. It was -- it's just that circumstances have changed. Of course, I've matured. I hope so. One should mature over 20 years.

AMANPOUR: But you did say we're beginning to learn the art of compromise, give and take, the achievement of consensus?

SUU KYI: This is in the legislature. I was talking about the legislature and having been there, just a couple of months, I have to say I'm very encouraged by the way things are proceeding. We have a speaker who is very fair-minded and who treats us as a proper opposition in spite of our very, very small numbers.

AMANPOUR: Do you remember what it was like that time, when you faced the soldiers and their rifles pointed at you, when you walked straight towards them?

SUU KYI: Ah, that was a long time back.

AMANPOUR: Do you remember it?

SUU KYI: Yes. Of course.

AMANPOUR: What went through your mind? People held back, but you didn't. You walked straight towards them.

SUU KYI: Well, I wasn't given much choice because first of all, they said you must all move to the side of the street. So I said, fine. So I said let's walk on the side of the street. And then he said something like that he would shoot whether or not we were on the side of the street or on the street itself. And I decided I might as well be on the street.

AMANPOUR: The fact that they didn't, what did that tell you?

SUU KYI: Well, a major came running up. He had been walking behind us, and he came running up and stopped the man who was in charge, who I think was a captain.

AMANPOUR: And then there was another major attempt on your life in 2003. Many, many people were killed. How did you keep going after that?

SUU KYI: Well, how could I not keep going after that? One has to keep going, especially because of incidents like that.

AMANPOUR: You talk about the sanctions. There seems to be something of a debate about how actually effective and instrumental the sanctions were in causing these reforms, in causing the military dictatorship to pave the path towards democracy.

Are you convinced that sanctions actually did it? Because obviously they still had access to all sorts of bridges (ph), and they really hurt quite a lot of the common people. A lot of people lost their jobs.

SUU KYI: Of course, it wasn't sanctions alone that brought about the reforms. But I think sanctions played a very, very important part. After all, if not, why is it that the Burmese government has been asking for the removal of sanctions? I think they were politically very effective. I do not agree that they affected the Burmese economy that much.

I always quote the IMF and say that they have come to the conclusion that the Burmese economy was not that much affected by the sanctions, and what had created the mess in Burma was simply mismanagement.

AMANPOUR: So you think politically and psychologically --


AMANPOUR: -- they were more effective?

SUU KYI: I think so.

AMANPOUR: In the by-elections, you think the regime was surprised that you won so many, your party won so many of the seats? Practically all of the ones that were contested.

SUU KYI: I think a great many of them were. I'm sure there were some who realized that (inaudible) turn out.

AMANPOUR: And what do you expect from the next set of elections in 2015? Do you expect to become the majority?

SUU KYI: I think it's too early to think of 2015. And I think the next two years are the more important ones, how we develop into a working democracy. And that will decide what the 2015 elections will be like.

AMANPOUR: I want to ask you a couple of personal questions, because you're a very public person.

SUU KYI: I usually don't like personal questions.


AMANPOUR: I know you don't. But as a mother, I wanted to ask you about the price that it took to do what you did. I think many working mothers -- you know, we grapple with our absences; we grapple with how to make it up to our kids. And yours have been more dramatic and more intense from any mother I can imagine.

Do you wonder how one day you can make it up to your kids? Do you feel you have? Do you feel that's a resolved relationship?

SUU KYI: I don't think of it as making up to my children, because after all, they're not children any more. They're grown up if they were. And you can't make it up to them as children because they're no longer children and they probably wouldn't like me to treat them as children any more.

In fact, I'm sure -- I'm sure they wouldn't like to be treated as children any more. So I think what I would simply wish to do is to learn to have a good relationship with them across the distance that separates us.

AMANPOUR: I read that you're estranged from your son, Alexander, but you will see him?

SUU KYI: I'm not estranged from son. I think this is the kind of rumor that goes around when people don't see one another for many, many years.

AMANPOUR: When we last talked, you warned against reckless optimism. Do you think that the optimism about Burma, Myanmar, is reckless these days? Or do you feel it's now on the solid path?

SUU KYI: I think on the part of some, it's still reckless. I have to mention my favorite economist, who works in Burma, Sean Turnell (ph), and he talks about the gold rush of investors. And I do not want that sort of thing. This is what I mean by reckless optimism. It will not help our country and I think it might disappoint the investors as well.

So I want everybody to consider what they are doing and to weigh the pros and cons and to do what is best for our country as well as for themselves. I want investors to profit. That's what investing is all about. Their investments must bear fruit. Well, that fruit should be shared between our people and the investors themselves.

AMANPOUR: And what shall we call your country? I hear you call it Burma in most of your public presentations. It is Myanmar.

SUU KYI: It's a matter of choice. It's Myanmar in Burmese and some time back, I think in the 1990s -- I'm not quite sure when -- the state law and order restoration council -- very Orwellian name --


SUU KYI: SLORC. That's right. Even the (inaudible) is rather Orwellian -- SLORC decided that Burma should henceforth be called Myanmar in English as well. But I think we have the right to a freedom of expression. And we can choose to call it the name that we feel comes most naturally to us.

AMANPOUR: Aung San Suu Kyi, thank you very much for joining me.

SUU KYI: Thank you.


AMANPOUR: What a woman, what a story, and Aung San Suu Kyi certainly has her work cut out for her.

After a break, Bernard Henri-Levy, the French writer and public intellectual, weighs in on the latest affront to Islam. We've seen the provocation. But how to start these unjustifiably violent responses? Free speech versus hate speech when we return.



AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program. Pouring oil on the fire or expressing free speech? That debate sparked again this week by a series of cartoons published in the French magazine, "Charlie Hebdo," some of which depict the Prophet Muhammad in obscene poses. And they are offensive to most Muslims and CNN is not showing any of them.

The weekly magazine has done this before. Its office was firebombed last year because of a cartoon lampooning the Prophet. And considering what's just happened across the Muslim world in the wake of that offensive anti-Islamic film posted to YouTube, there are fears that this latest provocation could spark more violence.

So how to make sense of all of this? How to make sense of the Arab Spring and how to reign in the militants who would use any provocation to whip up violence, as we've seen?

Earlier this week, I spoke to Bernard Henri-Levy, the French writer, philosopher and public intellectual, known simply in France as BHL.


AMANPOUR: Thank you for being here.


AMANPOUR: Now I know you come down on the side of freedom of expression. So do we all. But the question is, is this a smart editorial choice at this moment? Do we have responsibilities -- you, me and those cartoonists?

HENRI-LEVY: My opinion is the following: I don't like these cartoons. I respect Koran deeply and I don't like free offense (ph) like this. But those who feel offended who must know three things. Number one, they have to appeal to law, law, trials. This is the way of democracy.

Number two, if "Charlie Hebdo" or whatever newspaper makes a mistake, he is responsible of the mistake, not the state, not the embassies, not to mix the state and the newspaper and the newspaper is the beginning of democracy.

And number three, the right to blasphemy, the right to blasphemy is a core, is a key point of freedom. This cover of "Charlie Hebdo" mocks a Muslim man and a rabbi -- and a rabbi. I don't like it. I don't like the blasphemy against my creed.

But I know that since Voltaire, the right of blasphemy is really the nuclear core of the freedom in general. Everybody must understand that, even if we feel offended in our heart.

AMANPOUR: I fully understand what you're saying. And I would just wonder whether -- we're in a similar (ph) state of war. There's definitely a cultural war between Islam and the West, really. There's such a rising state of Islamophobia that the question again is, is it a wise choice?

HENRI-LEVY: We are not in a war between West and Muslim world, as far as I know. Your country, America, and my country, France, helped a Muslim country, which is Libya, to free itself. This is not a war. We were hand in hand with the Libyan Muslim people. And I hope we will do the same in Syria.

So the real war today is not between the West and the rest. It is inside the rest, inside Islam. The real clash is between the moderates and the fanatics. If there is a civilization war, it is inside Islam between those who accept even if it hurts, the blasphemy, and those who want to revenge blasphemy by violence, burning an embassy or killing the great Ambassador Chris Stevens.

AMANPOUR: So that leads me right into the next discussion. Of course, here we have this picture of you and Chris Stevens and another one of your friends there in Benghazi.

This war within Islam, the extremist versus those who are trying to emerge and the vast majority who want this democracy, what have these events of the last week, the killing of Chris Stevens, and the violence around, done to the Arab Spring or the idea of a nascent Muslim democracy?

HENRI-LEVY: I must say unfortunately, alas, that one of the of the collateral victim of all that might be -- and it breaks my heart to say that -- it might be the Syrian people, the people of Syria. I know that in our chancellery --


AMANPOUR: The halls of power --

HENRI-LEVY: -- in foreign policy, yes, there is a lot of people who are tempted to say they did not want to intervene in any way.

AMANPOUR: They're saying it already.

HENRI-LEVY: They felt pushed to do it. But now they say, come on. Is that the result of our involvement? Is that the Arab Spring? If it is that, we stop.

The war in Libya would probably never have happened if not the courage, the boldness of Hillary Clinton and Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy. It was a very peculiar situation.


HENRI-LEVY: And Christopher Stevens, Christopher Stevens, who was probably one of those who pushed Hillary Clinton or Bob Gates at this time to go on the side of Mahmoud Jibril. So will this reproduce itself in Syria? I hope, but I'm not sure at all.

AMANPOUR: It's always a pleasure. Thank you so much for being here.

HENRI-LEVY: Thank you, Christiane.

AMANPOUR: Thank you.

HENRI-LEVY: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: And when we return, a different sort of controversy and a struggle for survival at the top of the world.



AMANPOUR: And a final thought, far from the heated debate over free speech versus hate speech, another struggle is taking place in the icy waters of the Arctic Circle. Imagine a world whose economic treasures could lead to its own destruction.

Previously on this program we focused on how the frozen surface of Greenland is melting at a record pace because of global warming. But ironically, now we learn that the vanishing ice cap has made it easier for the U.S., Russia, members of the European Union, to explore for oil, gas and mineral deposits.

And China, with over a billion people to feed and energy to produce, wants a piece of that not-so-frozen pie. More exploration, of course, means more pollution and more greenhouse gases globally, all of which makes the ice melt faster, a very vicious Arctic Circle.

More research remains to be done, but one thing is clear, the Arctic ice is vanishing, and for all the riches it may yield, our world and our children's world will be poorer for it.

That's it for tonight's program. Meantime, our inbox is always open, Thanks for watching. Goodbye from New York.