Myanmar State Councillor Aung San Suu Kyi, in an exclusive interview with ANI, spoke about the ongoing Rohingya refugee crisis, counter-terrorism, The Dalai Lama’s ‘Buddha to help Rohingyas’ assertion and the way forward.
Here’s the full transcript of the interview:
You are now part of the government. And you are facing the same issues of civil liberties, democracy that you fought for before. So, how has this transition been? Has it been comfortable, has it been difficult? Or challenging?
It has been very challenging. We always thought that it would be because as you know democracy is not exactly perfect one because we are working in the framework of a constitution, which is not truly democratic. We always knew it would be a challenge. So, challenging but not a surprise.
In your words, can you actually describe how you are dealing with the issue (Rohingyas)? Is it a humanitarian issue? Is it a socio-economic issue or is it something else?
It’s a humanitarian issue which has risen out of long-term socio-economic problems and political of course. In the Rakhine State, go back to the 19th century, and periodically trouble has broken out there between the Muslim community and the Rakhine community. And we have inherited this very complex problem and we have to deal with it and have to resolve it. So, obviously, it is not something we can do overnight. It is not something that we can find simple answers to because building up trust and harmony between two communities, that have in many parts of the region, have been hostile to one another, is not done easily. And I say in many part of the region because there are places in Rakhine where Muslims and Rakhines live in a harmonious way. And we want to see how that is possible in some places and not in others.
There has been lot of criticism about what the Myanmar Government has referred to as a ‘clean up operation’ in the Rakhine area. You have actually said that they are ethnic communities and there are minority Muslim communities that are having problems. You have not used the word Rohingya at all in the statements that you have issued. Yesterday also, you referred to them as minority Muslims. Is there any particular reason for it?
Yes, because there have been a lot of controversies with regard to the term used to describe the Muslims of the Rakhine. There are those who want to call them as Rohingyas or who want to refer the Muslims there as Rohingyas. And the Rakhines will not use any term except Bengalis, meaning to say that they are not ethnic Rakhines. And I think that instead of using emotive terms, this term has become emotive, and highly charged. It’s better to call them as Muslims which is a description that nobody can deny. We are talking about the Muslim community in the Rakhine state and other terms may be applied to that community but I do not see any point in using terms that simply inflame passions further.
We have seen off late that you have said that law will take its course and you will apply the law strictly against anti-social elements and people who are indulging in violence? Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. Have those steps been activated?
We have taken action against those who have been found to have broken the law. And by the way, I think it?s better to answer the first part of the question about the clearance operation. I think that what they are referring to?the clearance operations after armed conflicts and excessive use of force and many people were injured or had to flee or lost their lives as a result of these operations.
We are investigating all these allegations, but you in India, as a common law country, know that we need the kind of evidence that will stand up in court before we condemn anybody for the particular act. And we have taken people to court, if it has been found that they have broken the law or they have overstepped their conduct when they are carrying out their responsibilities. We have very strong code of conduct that has been distributed to all the security forces and they have been instructed to follow them very closely.
You have said that Myanmar is ready to take back the displaced population of close to over half a million people across South Asia, provided they meet the verification standards.
I don’t know whether ‘verification standards’ is the phrase to use. We have had similar repatriations in the past. The first time that these criteria were established was back in 1993. The criteria on which both Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed and it’s in line with the criteria that we will receive back those who have been displaced from Rakhine because we are not certain of the exact numbers.
Has the verification process started?
We are ready to start it any time.
You have agreed to a committee headed by Mr. Kofi Annan
We didn’t agree to it, actually we invited him. We invited him to head a commission, that we believe, would help us to find out what the fundamental problems in the Rakhine were and how to address those problems. And his commission had completed the work and.. he (Annan) has already submitted the report.
The other concern that is dominating the public space is that organisations like the ARSA have some kind of influence on the displaced population. And this ARSA has been receiving some kind of patronage or help from terrorist groups based in Pakistan as well as the ISIS and the ISI. Do you agree with that view? How would you like to respond to that?
Well, counter-terrorism is something that we have to take very seriously. And I have to confess that our country has not had experiments with regard to counter-terrorism. But, in India, you have had a lot of experiments and you know that it is a very delicate matter because counter-terrorism must be carried out in such a way that the innocent are not affected. Whatever we do, we should try to avoid all collateral damage and any action that would hurt innocents.
Counter-terrorism is very difficult because terrorism by its nature means that some of the members are embedded in the ordinary population and how we distinguish one from the other is very important.
We don’t want to hurt those who are innocent and at the same time we have to make sure terrorists are not allowed to carry on with their activities.
Are you talking to Islamabad in any way on this issue in particular?
No, we have not had any discussions with Islamabad on this.
As a Nobel Peace Prize winner, I am sure that you must be feeling sympathetic to the displacement of so many people. There is also criticism regarding that you might be, according to reports, under some kind of political compulsion not to voice what your true feelings are. Is that a correct statement to make?
No, my true feelings are very very simple. I want peace and harmony in Rakhine. It’s the responsibility of every government to maintain a position of integrity and fairness. We have to be fair to all communities. We have always maintained this that we don’t condemn either of the communities. We condemn actions that are against the rule of law and that are against the humanitarian needs of all people. But we have never condemned communities as such.
We have condemned the ARSA because we have now officially declared it as a terrorist organization. And we condemn all terrorism.
The Dalai Lama has expressed concerns about what is happening in the Rakhine state. He said that Buddha might have helped Muslims in distress. How would you respond to that kind of statement?
We are doing our best to help all those who are in distress within the borders of our country, making no distinction between Muslims and Hindus or Rakhines or small Hindu community in the Rakhine state who have been also caught in the conflict and have been killed. We are trying to help everyone.
Saying that a solution lies in socio-economic development or infrastructure, do you agree with that?
That has to be part of the solution. It’s not the whole solution. It is not as simple as that. But certainly socio-economic development is a very important part of the solution.
Going forward, what do you think is the most amicable solution for ending this distress of over half a million people?
The most amicable solution would be to promote love and compassion throughout the communities. But it may be the most amicable, the most desirable, but it is not necessarily the easiest one to achieve.
You must know that it is the most difficult thing in the world to make, who are hostile to each other, learn to open their hearts and to accept the differences and make those differences strength and a bond between them.
So, while the most amicable and the most desirable solution is to create harmony and understanding, it?s not something that we can create overnight. We have to take time over this.
When you say time, can you say it to be a short term or a long term, approximately how much?
No, I don?t think we can say this. But we have to work at it now. It’s not a matter of how long it will take but when you are going to do this and how we are going to go about it. Example, with regard to humanitarian aid, which is very important in a situation like this, we started two days after the attack took place on August 25. On 27th our minister for resettlement and relief was already in Rakhine taking rounds of communities that have been affected and the ones who were accessible and doing his best to give humanitarian aid not just in material terms but also to allay the fears and concerns of the people.
So, we have to work at it all the time and immediately. I think it?s a matter of doing everything that you can from day to day instead trying to forecast how many days it’s going to take.
The UN and the diplomatic community here, have by and large, welcomed your address to the nation. And they said that it’s a welcome statement that they have seen. They see light at the end of what is possibly right now a dark tunnel. How would you respond to that?
Well, it’s nice that they said. But I am also little intrigued because what I said yesterday was really not different from what our government has been saying again and again.
We have been issuing various statements in this situation and what I said yesterday, doesn?t differ very much from what has been said before. May be I put it a little bit more emphatically because I just wanted to give a message across but it is the same message.
We have had very good relations between Myanmar and India, you had the recent visit of our Prime Minister between September 5th and 7th. Would you be kind enough to say what have been the major takeaways from that visit?
I always say that major takeaways from any exchange of visits between countries are the strengthening of understanding and mutual respect. And on that basis, we can build the kind of relationship that can overcome the inevitable difficulties that any two countries will have to overcome, especially when they are neighbours.