Myanmar Opposition Leader Suu Kyi Sees the ‘Beginning of Change’

National League for Democracy Party Leader Aung San Suu Kyi
Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy party speaks via satellite from Myanmar. Photographer: Ramin Talie/Bloomberg

Aung San Suu Kyi, the Myanmar opposition leader, said today she sees the possibility of change in her country and progress in her struggle to bring democracy there.

“It’s not easy, but it’s getting on,” Suu Kyi said via satellite during an event organized by the Clinton Global Initiative, the Sept. 20-22 gathering of former and current world leaders in New York led by former U.S. President Bill Clinton. “I’m cautiously optimistic that we’re going forward,” she said. “We are beginning to see the beginning of change.”

Suu Kyi spoke at a seminar along with fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, who told the opposition icon that seeing and hearing her left him “like a smitten young man -- I love you!” Tutu turns 80 next month.

The feeling, she told him, was mutual.

The audience applauded as moderator Charlie Rose chuckled.

Suu Kyi, 66, said she hadn’t expected her struggle to take so long. The activist has been either imprisoned or under house arrest off-and-on for almost a combined 15 years since she returned to Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, from England in 1988. She was most recently released in November 2010.

After her political party, the National League for Democracy, won a landslide victory in 1990 elections, the military junta refused to hand over power. More recently, the junta suppressed 2007 protests, killing at least 13, according to the Central Intelligence Agency, and arresting thousands.

Homes Raided

The regime has continued to raid homes and monasteries, arresting anyone suspected of taking part in pro-democracy protests, according to the CIA website.

Suu Kyi expressed optimism about the eventual success of her cause and said people all over the world, regardless of culture or country, understand and appreciate basic ideas enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.

“Everyone can understand ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,’” she said. “The idea of freedom and security, beautifully balanced, is a concept that is acceptable to human beings across the world. This is what we know: people want to be free and they want to feel secure as well.”

When she talks about democracy, she said, she is really talking about the creation of institutions.

One reason for Suu Kyi’s optimism was in the crowds that greeted her 2010 release. “I noticed the very first day I was released, there were so many young people in the crowd to greet me, so many more than I’ve ever seen in a crowd,” she said.

‘More Can Be Done’

She thanked the U.S. for its support of the democracy movement in Myanmar, adding, “but we always think more can be done.”

The U.S., the European Union and Canada have imposed sanctions that bar most financial transactions with Burmese businesses, impose travel bans on those connected to the junta and block Burmese imports.

The country, rich in natural resources, including lumber, semi-precious gems and natural gas, trades extensively with China, Thailand, Singapore and India, its fourth-largest trading partner.

Rose asked what India could do to help Suu Kyi’s cause. “They should listen to the people of Burma,” she said.

As the event drew to a close, Tutu told her that he looked forward to coming to Myanmar when she is “inaugurated as head of your government.”

Suu Kyi threw him a compliment in return and had the crowd laughing once again. “I’ll have to be very, very ambitious,” she said, “because I do want Desmond to come.”

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