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'Need for more openness in society'
Freed after years of house arrest on November 13 last year, Aung San Suu Kyi is quickly stepping in to fill the political void left by long years of administration by Myanmar’s military junta. She met President Thein Sein last month in an effort to bridge the differences between Sein’s nominally-civilian government that came to power last year and her own party’s demand for democracy. The government too is meeting Suu Kyi half-way, allowing her to address gatherings and meet foreign dignitaries. The developments are quite a step forward for Myanmar, whose government has traditionally been known to stifle dissent, and have left the leader of the country’s democratic opposition optimistic about the future. In an interview with Supriya Vani at her party headquarters in Yangon, Suu Kyi, 66, stayed away from the topic of Myanmar politics and discussed the problems democracies face and India’s unique anti-corruption movement. For the Nobel peace prize winner, who graduated from New Delhi’s Lady Shri Ram College and lived in India prior to her return to Myanmar in 1988, these are topics close to her heart
People are supposed to be masters of their own destiny in a democracy, but it hasn't quite worked out that way. Political parties hijack the system and indulge in corruption and the situation is even more worrisome in the developing nations. How can democracy be insulated against such forces?
Corruption is spreading all over the world and I think it has a lot to do with the increasing materialism of our age. But indulging in corruption isn't easy especially when you have a clean government and that's where it should start. People at the top have to be clean and if they are clean, then the bottom can also be cleaned up. At that the same time, I think civil servants must be paid enough because corruption usually starts from government and civil servants, but that alone doesn't solve the problem. Action must be taken against the corrupt. In addition, I think it is the duty of society to educate the people. People should take a stand that they will not tolerate corrupt politicians. They must be educated enough to decide whom to vote for and whom not to vote for.
India has not been able to bar those with criminal records from entering Parliament and the state legislatures yet. How can such people be prevented from becoming lawmakers?
I go back to my earlier answer - that you have to give more information to the people so they can decide who they should support and why they should vote. Money and muscle power is greed and fear - money appeals to greed and muscle power puts fear in people. It's not enough to say 'don't be greedy' or 'don't be afraid' - you have to make people understand the long-term consequences. It is the responsibility of the whole society. I think we need a good, strong government in India, so you need capable journalists who can expose corruption. But this doesn't mean all journalists are honest or every single newspaper is upright. And you also need education - there is no point in publishing good reports when people can't read. Basic education is important, so that people understand the difference between populism and sincere effort.
How do you see the role of civil society in a democratic set-up in checking corruption, especially when the political leadership is seen as having acquired a vested interest in a corrupt system?
Civil society organisations, if they work properly, should act as a check on politicians. But then civil society organisations also comprise people, so they can be corrupt too. It isn't necessary that because somebody is working for this, he or she is totally above corruption. So we have to be vigilant all the time and never take anything for granted. Any organisation can become corrupt without the right kind of vigilance.
In India, some politicians view activism by civil society as detrimental to their interests. They term such activism as 'tyranny of the unelected', whereas civil society activists counter by terming the system 'persecution by the corrupt elected'. How can such a situation be resolved?
One of the great advantages of democracy is that it provides a lot of room for an exchange of views, for creating unity out of diversity. I think civil society should speak to politicians and vice-versa. They should not see each other as enemies. I don't think there is a need for strife between politicians and civil society provided their goals are the same. If they are all working towards the same goal - the betterment of people and society - then they should be able to join hands. I think there should be more openness and less segregation between civil society and the political system.
Do you think Mahatma Gandhi's concept of trusteeship could work as an antidote to corruption?
Gandhiji was a man of tremendous values and duties. Such values should be taught to children from an early age. But I think we have to work a lot harder today, I think parents today are pushing their children towards materialism and while that is alright human values too should be given consideration. India has many advantages which we (in Myanmar) don't have. Indians should not waste their privileges.
What should people do to negate the impact of evil impulses and tendencies to go corrupt in a democratic set-up ? Lord Acton put it best, 'Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. '
I don't think we should give absolute power to anyone. In a democratic set-up, there are checks and balances. As for a solution, there are two types - one is institutional, to stop people from wrongdoing, and another is personal, related to education and human values. There has always been corruption. India's economy is booming, there are opportunities to make money, to give and take bribes, so you need stronger measures to curb corruption.
Democracy means freedom for individuals so that they may realise their full potential. But it is noticed that such freedom is generally sans any social responsibility. This results in evolution of different value systems of those with access to power and of those far removed from such access. How can this faultline be corrected?
First of all, I think, we should teach people that right, privilege and responsibility always go together. This is one of the basic political lessons, and it goes back to education. Education is important if you are to live as a 'valuable' human being. It is the most common difference between the privileged and underprivileged in Burma today. Our education system is very poor and, as in India, there are people who can't go to schools while at the same time privileged kids go to the best schools and colleges of the world. If the gap between the privileged and underprivileged isn't narrowed there will be social unrest because it is not human nature to accept such differences in the long run. People will become discontented and those who are privileged will think for their own good they need a stable society. The best way to preserve riches is to live in a stable society, but stability and security will only come if people in general are satisfied in a situation. I think they should look beyond their selfish needs and desires and see what is better for society.
Which country do you think is a role model as a democracy? How do you rate India's democracy?
I don't think we can talk about one role model because there are so many kinds of democracies. Earlier, I might have said Scandinavian countries are stable, but see what has happened in Norway. So every society has different problems. The great achievement for India is that in spite of its many problems, in spite of its large population and great number of uneducated people, it has managed to continue with its democratic system. This is no mean achievement, but you can't afford to be complacent. You've got to safeguard this treasure. You are fighting against corruption, but the very fact that you are free to fight against corruption is because of democracy. So we admire India for retaining its democratic system under so many problems. I have to say we have great admiration for the Indian Army, which is a model army because India has never come under military rule. So even with flaws, India is still a democracy.
You have scripted a saga of relentless struggle for democratic values. You have suffered incarceration for almost two decades. What is that fire within that has kept you going?
I hope it's not fire because fire is hot, it's destructive. I hope what has kept me motivated is something more peaceful and more positive. I think most importantly it's the support of my people and the dedication of my colleagues. Considering the fact that the National League for Democracy has been struggling for about 30 years, all these people in my office are unpaid, their families are broken, they have spent most of their lives in prisons, some of them came here in their early 20s and today they are middle-aged, many of them are still unmarried. It's a commitment towards society and it's through this commitment that we get our strength.
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