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Myanmar: A Revolution in Progress; From Icon to Political Player; Imagine a World

Aired August 26, 2013 - 15:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, I'm Christiane Amanpour, and welcome to a special edition of our program, where we take a look at some of the stories and conversations that we've had this year, ones that we thought were worth sharing with you again, and also reporting some new developments.

Tonight, the Myanmar miracle -- or that's what's hoped for this country of almost 50 million people that's tucked between Asian powerhouses India and China, a country which just three years ago was being brutally led by one of the world's most repressive military regimes.

For decades, Myanmar, also known as Burma, was best known for the heroic struggle of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent more than 15 years under house arrest, separated from her husband and sons by her military jailers.

But she kept up the struggle to reform her beleaguered country and now her vision is becoming reality at a breathtaking pace.

But if she is the icon of democracy, Myanmar calls this man the icon of reform, former general and now President Thein Sein, who met with U.S. President Obama in Washington this spring. It's the first time a Burmese leader has visited the White House since 1966.

And since then, the country has morphed from military junta to fledgling democracy, with political and economic reforms that were unimaginable just three short years ago.

It's still very much a work in progress though, as President Obama acknowledged in November when he became the first-ever U.S. president ever to visit Burma.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't think anybody's under any illusion that Burma has arrived, that they're where they need to be. On the other hand, if we waited to engage until they had achieved a perfect democracy, my suspicion is we'd be waiting an awful long time.


AMANPOUR: With Burma charging towards change, economic liberalization, lifting press censorship, representative democracy, major problems still persist. Endemic poverty, drug trafficking, corruption and an explosion of brutal ethnic violence, specifically the targeting and massacre of the country's Muslim minority by extremists amongst its Buddhist majority.

As Thein Sein arrived in Washington, the group Physicians for Human Rights accused his government and security forces of standing idly by and they called for an independent investigation into the killings.

I asked President Thein Sein about all of this and about the new great game as President Obama famously pivots to Asia. Myanmar is at the center of a tussle for influence between the U.S. and China.


AMANPOUR: Mr. President, welcome to the program. Thank you for being here.

THEIN SEIN, PRESIDENT OF MYANMAR (through translator): Thank you for giving me the opportunity to be with you and with CNN.

AMANPOUR: You must be amazed at the speed with which relations with the United States are improving. I mean, it wasn't many years ago that you were enemy number one for the United States. This is incredible.

SEIN (through translator): I have to agree. I myself am amazed at the speed of the improvement of our bilateral relations. But there are no permanent friends or permanent foes in international relations.

AMANPOUR: Yes, that's a famous saying.

What is it that you hope to get out of this relationship? What is it you hope to get out of your visit with President Obama?

SEIN (through translator): First of all, I hope that our bilateral relations between our two countries will improve because of this visit.

And secondly, I think I'll be able to remove some of the obstacles and challenges that we now have when it comes to economic development.

AMANPOUR: What do you think the United States wants from you?

We have heard that it's very important for the United States and maybe for Myanmar/Burma as well that you develop a stronger relationship with America than with China?

Is there a competition for Myanmar between the United States and China?

SEIN (through translator): I must say there's no competition between China and the United States. Our foreign policy is we maintain friendly relations with all countries around the world, and will continue to maintain our friendly relations with China; and at the same time, we'll try to maintain and improve our relations with the United States.

AMANPOUR: Let me go back to these incredible changes that are happening in your country.

Will you agree and accept that, for many, many years -- decades -- Myanmar was one of the most hated regimes? It was like North Korea for the West, ruthless. It was brutal, cruel.

And now it's changed. And I'm trying to figure out why, how, what was the turning point?

SEIN (through translator): As you know, now in Myanmar, we have a democratically elected constitutional government as well as elected members of parliament. So it's the duty of the government to fulfill the will and the desire of the people. The reforms that we are instituting are the will of the majority of the people.

AMANPOUR: I'm sure you're right; the reforms are the will of the people.

But for many, many years, the government, the junta did not respond to that will of the people.

So what changed you?

SEIN (through translator): As one of the citizens of Myanmar myself, I am trying my best to fulfill the will and the desire of the people.

AMANPOUR: There has been, over the last -- more than a year -- an explosion of communal violence, of Muslims, Rohingyas and others being killed. Hundreds of people have been killed; thousands of homes have been destroyed. And there are maybe 12 or more thousand people in refugee camps now.

The government is criticized for not doing enough to stop this.

Is that a fair criticism? And should you be doing more to stop this?

SEIN (through translator): According to our government, we don't have a policy of discriminating based on religion or race. This communal violence started because of a criminal act and this led to the communal violence.

We're doing our utmost to contain the violence while ensuring the rule of law.

Because of our efforts, peace and stability have been restored in this part of the country. We are also trying our best to provide necessary humanitarian assistance for the reconstruction and rehabilitation of the people in that area.

AMANPOUR: President Obama says there's no excuse for violence against innocents. I'm sure this will be part of your discussions with him.

Do you accept that these Muslims have a right to be in Myanmar, in Burma, and should have their rights and their livelihoods protected and safeguarded?

SEIN World Affairs: You are correct that all the citizens in our country must be able to enjoy their fundamental rights. At the same time, we must also safeguard their rights and the rights in accordance with our law.

AMANPOUR: Just ahead of this trip, you released another 20 political prisoners. And you've released hundreds since you've been president.

There are still 160 or so more left -- again, this is bound to come up with your conversation with President Obama. And it's one of the reasons why some sanctions -- U.S. -- are still on Myanmar.

Will you release all the remaining political prisoners?

SEIN (through translator): The concept of releasing political prisoners in our country is carried out because we want to ensure that the political process is inclusive, where all people of Myanmar can participate in the political process.

Therefore, that is the main reason we are releasing political prisoners.

We also have formed a committee for scrutinizing the remaining political prisoners. But some of the prisoners that we still detain are there because they've committed crimes such as murder or rape. But they will be released, based on the recommendations of this committee.

AMANPOUR: But you do accept that there still remain political prisoners who need to be freed?

SEIN (through translator): With regard to political prisoners, there has been a discrepancy in the list of prisoners. But as I said earlier, the committee for scrutinizing the remaining prisoners has been thoroughly studying the cases.

If they are eligible, they will be released.

AMANPOUR: Everybody says corruption is a major problem in Myanmar. They say you are not corrupt, but many others are.

Do you agree, that it is a very big problem?

SEIN (through translator): We have to estimate that Myanmar, like other countries, has her corruption problems, but our government is committed to having a clean, good government. So we are trying our best to reduce the corruption and eventually eradicate this problem of the corruption in our country.

AMANPOUR: One last question, do you finally feel relief, taking off the military uniform and putting on the civilian suit of a new democrat?

SEIN (through translator): I served in the military for my country. Now I am serving as a civilian for my country. But you cannot compare that to when I was serving as the president. As president, I have more duties in the interests of our country. It is a heavy duty and a heavy responsibility to serve the people and the country.

AMANPOUR: Mr. President, thank you very much.

SEIN: Thank you.


AMANPOUR: How things have changed in Myanmar. We just heard President Thein Sein, a former general, speak of his respect for Aung San Suu Kyi, the courageous woman whose passive resistance helped bring down the military regime.

After a break, we'll hear from Aung San Suu Kyi herself, still riding the whirlwind that took her from house arrest to a Nobel Prize to a seat in parliament, when we return.



AMANPOUR: Welcome back to tonight's program.

Moving now from Myanmar's leader, Thein Sein, to its national hero and Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi. As we said earlier, in 2010, Suu Kyi was released from house arrest after spending most of two decades isolated from the world by the brutal and repressive military regime.

It was the leader of that regime, Thein Sein, who released her, a critical moment in his reform program.

During her captivity, Suu Kyi lost her husband to cancer and was estranged from her two young sons, who were forbidden to visit her.

But last year, she was finally able to collect the Nobel Prize that she won back in 1991 and she also won a seat in parliament in the 2012 by- elections.

Now Suu Kyi, the icon, has become Suu Kyi, the politician. She stepped off the pedestal and into the fray. In fact, she has just laid her ambitions on the table.


AUNG SAN SUU KYI, BURMESE ACTIVIST: I said I might as well be honest and say yes. I do aspire to the presidency, as I should, as a leader of a political party that is going to take part in the electoral process.


AMANPOUR: But that, of course, will require changing the constitution, which bars people who've been married to foreigners from running. Her late husband, Michael Arras, was a British academic.

I caught up with Aung San Suu Kyi when she visited New York during a whirlwind tour of the United States. Back then, she was still being coy about the presidency.


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

SUU KYI: A pleasure.

AMANPOUR: I see you in these amazing 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 is. 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: 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. I've 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 than 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 -- yes, 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: Aung San Suu Kyi, thank you very much for joining me.

SUU KYI: Thank you.


AMANPOUR: And we'll be back with a final word about the rapidly changing Myanmar, after a break.


AMANPOUR: And finally tonight, we've seen remarkable changes taking place in Myanmar. But imagine a world before those reforms took root, when dissent was silent and political prisoners were tortured and killed.

Five years ago, on the border of Myanmar and Thailand, I saw first- hand what was then the face of Burma's military regime, especially after it cracked down on the Saffron Revolution led by Buddhist monks.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): Among the many Buddhist monuments, I found a memorial to torture run by Burmese political activist Bo Kyi. He showed me what the regime was capable of.

BO KYI, ASSOCIATION FOR POLITICAL PRISONERS: This is intentionally used for punishment. So for instance, if someone is caught --


AMANPOUR: Were you imprisoned?

KYI: Yes, I myself spent in prison for seven years and three months. I used to wear this for at least two times.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): Bo Kyi has been documenting those who were killed or arrested in last September's uprising.

KYI: He is a student, just only 15 years old.


KYI: Also that man, he is (inaudible).

AMANPOUR: Do you know how many people were killed?

KYI: We could find only two (ph) at least. So maybe, we believe, over 100 might be killed during the crackdown.


AMANPOUR: Nothing will bring back the dead and all political prisoners need to be freed. And so today, Bo Kyi and his fellow activists are still at work, documenting and bearing witness.

And yet as we leave you with these postcards from Burma, what is happening there today was unimaginable those five years ago.

That's it for tonight's program. You can always contact us on our website, Thanks for watching and goodbye from New York.