Press conference and Q&A given by the Prime Minister, Mr David Cameron and Aung San Suu Kyi on Thursday 21 June 2012.
Good afternoon, everyone. Aung San Suu Kyi, welcome to Downing Street. When we met at your house in Rangoon two months ago this visit to Britain was still a fragile hope, and to welcome you here today after nearly quarter of a century is a great moment. A moment few expected and few have dared to hope for.
Over those years you have been a symbol of courage and of hope for our people, and for your people and for the whole world. Your example has inspired people across the world and it’s inspired people here in Britain too. So it’s an honour to have you here and in parliament today where you will speak shortly, and to pay tribute to all that you have achieved, and to give thanks for the freedom that you now enjoy to travel, including coming here.
But we are also here to carry on the work for democracy in Burma. As you said yesterday in your beloved Oxford, Burma faces a long and difficult road; indeed, it is a road that is not yet built but which the Burmese people will need to build together. But the destination is clear: a democratic Burma whose people enjoy the liberties of a free nation underpinned by the rule of law.
I’m heartened by the partnership for reform that you have developed with President Thein Sein, and the important progress under his leadership. Britain will remain staunch in its support just as we have been in the long period of darkness through which you and your people have lived through. That’s why we will be opening an office in Nay Pyi Taw and why I’ve invited the President to visit Britain. He too has shown considerable courage in leading the latest reforms. But Daw Suu, just as it was wrong to give in to despair when things were going badly, so I think you are absolutely right to warn now against reckless optimism that a happier era may be in prospect.
We will remain vigorous and rigorous in our questioning until we’ve made those changes irreversible. That is why we suspended rather than lifted the sanctions against Burma in April. As we deepen our engagement with Burma we will focus on three priorities: first, we will invest in strengthening Burma’s emerging democracy. Next month MPs and members of the House of Lords will go to Burma to scope the potential to build up the democratic process. We will invest people and money in this work up to the 2015 elections.
Second, we must address the ethnic conflicts. The fight in Kachin State and recent violence in Rakhine State are ongoing tragedies as you yourself have said. Until we deal with these issues, Burma cannot achieve true democracy. So we are investing £3 million in immediate peace-building work. We will support wider reconciliation by sharing experience, including from Northern Ireland, and will continue to press for the release of the remaining political prisoners.
Third, we must build an economic future for all of Burma’s people. Britain has long been Burma’s biggest aid donor and we will increase our support in each successive year to the 2015 elections to support education, healthcare, new businesses and the rule of law, but lasting prosperity will come from people investing and doing business. Britain will do its part. We no longer discourage trade and investment in Burma and we will, if the environment permits, operate in a way that benefits the people of Burma. We will help British business to trade and invest as long as they do so in a responsible way.
Daw Suu, Britain will remain a resolute friend to you and to the people of Burma. In a world beset by problems and difficulties your example of courage and determination has shone through. If the Burmese people now fulfil their dreams, your country will be a light in the darkness for all people who struggle for the freedom that you want to see for your country, and it is a challenge for all of us to stand with them as we’ve stood with you. Thank you, and welcome.
Aung San Suu Kyi
Thank you, not just to the Prime Minister, but to the government and the people of this country for the very warm welcome they have given me. So many people have asked me what this journey means to me, and for me it means warmth, it means kindness, it means the kind of hospitality I had not expected because I had thought of myself as one politician travelling from one country to another. But I find that people have accepted me as one of them, and for this I am very grateful, not because I have enjoyed the fruits of this warmth, but because it is a good augury for the future of my country. It means that my country, which has long been apart from the democracies of the world, will soon begin to join in this great community that will ensure the happy future of our country.
I’m very grateful to the Prime Minister for all the programmes that they are preparing to help establish genuine democratic institutions in Burma. Eventually, ultimately, it is by strengthening the people and empowering them that we will be able to build up a genuine democratic society. The ethnic conflicts that are plaguing our country, we have to have the courage to investigate the roots of these conflicts, and we need the wisdom to go through a negotiation process that will result in a permanent political settlement.
In the north and in the east, ceasefires have been achieved but I heard some disturbing news this morning that fighting has broken out again in the east between some of the Shan forces and government forces, in spite of the fact that ceasefires were agreed to not so long ago. So it’s not ceasefires which are the answer to our problems: it is political settlement that will meet the aspirations of all our ethnic nationalities.
I hope that we will be helped by our friends all over the world in finding a solution to our problems, not just political and social but also economic. In that respect I would particularly like to emphasise the need for what I have termed democracy-friendly, human rights friendly investment. We would like investors to think of what benefits they can give to our country as well as the profits they hope to make, which they have a perfect right to hope for.
We would like to work together with peoples from all over the world to build up a society that can be assured that its future is in its own hands and not in the hands of one small group, whether it be the military or whether it be our political party. We do not want Burma’s future to be in the hands of any particular group. We want it to be in the hands of our people.
In connection with this I have been discussing the need to build up a civil service that may be fit to carry out the responsibilities necessary in a democratic society. We agreed that governments may come and go but the civil service needs to go on forever, and a clean, efficient civil service is what we need and I hope that all of our friends from all over the world will help us to achieve this, and the other progress that we are looking forward to.
I’m not going to go on too long because I believe that there are going to be questions and answers. I’ll leave it to you to ask us more about what I have not spoken about, if I have failed to mention anything that you think is crucial. So let me just conclude by saying, once again, how much I appreciate the way in which Britain has welcomed me after 24 years away from this country. Thank you.
Thank you very much indeed, thank you. On civil service reform, Daw Suu said that she wanted many Bernards but not too many Sir Humphreys, so we have an agenda.
Aung San Suu Kyi
Use Sir Humphrey as a comic relief.
Right, with apologies to Sir Humphrey if he’s in the back of the room.
Daw Suu, may I just say what a pleasure it is having seen you in Burma when you were effectively a prisoner; to see you here in London now is a great pleasure. May I ask both of you: do you think it’s entirely appropriate to invite President Thein Sein to Britain given his pretty questionable record, given the way many people have criticised the decision already today? And can I ask you, both of you also, did you talk about this before the invitation was issued?
Aung San Suu Kyi
I thought you said you were going to answer John’s question?
I would, but he asked us both. Look, I think it is the right decision because there’s a process of reform in Burma and a process that the friends of democratic Burma, like Britain, want to see succeed. And in order for that to succeed we need to work with the regime, whatever we may have thought of it in the past. But I do believe the President is sincere in wanting reform and I’ve met with him and been able to question him and I was very influenced by what Daw Suu said about believing he was sincere in wanting reform, and obviously thought very carefully before visiting Burma and before meeting with him.
I also thought carefully before inviting him to the UK. But if we want reform to succeed, if we want that path to be travelled, I think we have to recognise that we need the regime to be in favour of that reform and to sustain that reform, and some engagement between Britain and the Burmese regime, I think, is one way to help deliver that. We’ve discussed, I think, all of these steps that have been taken at every stage of the way, my office with Daw Suu’s, to try to make sure that we do these things in the right way. But I think it is the right answer.
Aung San Suu Kyi
I do agree. I think it’s right to invite him, because we don’t want to be shackled by the past. We want to use the past to build up a happier future.
Shows enormous generosity of spirit, but I’m sure that is the right way to deliver the change that we want to see.
I think we’ll have a question from the Burmese media.
One question each to both. Firstly, by according to Aung San Suu Kyi such a welcome and such very high profile treatment, are you afraid that you would in some way irk the government? And then how would you balance the relationship between yourself and your government with Aung San Suu Kyi and with her government?
Another question for Daw Suu. Allow me to ask in Burmese.
Thank you. Look, I think that it was a huge honour to be able to invite Daw Suu here to Britain. Many people have been rooting for her and supporting her all the time through the dark days of confinement, and it was an invitation I wanted to give, an invitation I’m delighted that she was able to take up. I think this week she’s shown why people have such huge faith in her, because she’s inspirational in her courage in fighting for democracy, and in having to give up so much personally in order to win that fight for her people. It’s an act of huge political selflessness, which I think is an example, frankly, to politicians, to people all over the world and why it’s so good that she is here this week. But, as I’ve said, I think it’s important. What we, the friends of a democratic Burma, want to achieve is that path to democracy, and that means of course working with the government too and encouraging them to take the steps down the road to reform. That’s why I met with President Thein Sein, that’s why I then went to the European Union and said, ‘Look, I think we should suspend the sanctions’ - not lift the sanctions immediately, but suspend them, because of the steps that the Burmese leadership have taken, and the other European countries thought that was the right approach and that’s the approach that’s been taken. So this is going to be a difficult road to travel, a difficult balancing act, as you put it, but I’m convinced we made the right decisions in order to encourage the right steps forward. And so far, so good.
Daw Suu, can I just ask you first of all, you talked about looking to your friends for help. I just wondered whether you had any more specifics in mind. Do you feel that the rest of the world is doing enough? What would you like to see the UK do more, if anything? You talked about the civil service. I just wondered if you had anything specific in mind in terms of training or exchanges.
And just to underline the joys of dealing with a free press, I’d like to ask the Prime Minister whether he thinks Gary Barlow’s tax affairs are morally wrong and should he give back his OBE?
Aung San Suu Kyi
Shall I answer first? I think I’ve got the easier question. Well, when I say that I want all our friends to help, first of all I want them to understand that this is the most difficult bit. We have reached the stage when we are going to have to face our most difficult challenges, far more difficult than the years before when we had to struggle, and people thought perhaps because we were in prison or under house arrest or because our party was so repressed we were going through the most difficult period. No. We are about to emerge, about to go forward onto the most difficult road we’ve ever walked before. Because now will decide what happens in 2015 and now will decide whether we are going to make the breakthrough to democracy.
So we want our friends to help. First of all, by maintaining an awareness of what is really going on in Burma and to try to probe below the surface of what seems like reform. For example, we want to make sure that investments actually empower new players, that it allows more people to take part in the economic development of the country, and that development and humanitarian aid empowers the people. I said this before. This is what is important.
You, more than ever, our friends, need to be watchdogs. I am not sure this is the nicest expression, but you know what I mean - that you have to watch what is going on in Burma. And by our friends I’m not just referring to the countries of the West, but our neighbours, our regional friends in South East Asia, because I was in Thailand before I came to the West and I was amazed and very much moved by the support of the Thai people for our cause and the great kindness of the Thai government to me. So I think we have friends in all parts of the world and we want all those friends to be aware of the fact that our need now is greater than it has ever been.
I think one of the great strengths of this visit is that Daw Suu has been very specific about what Burma needs: aid that is transparent and helps people and doesn’t prop up governments; trade that actually puts into the country and builds up the country rather than taking out of the country; and helping to build the political capacity, recognising that democracy is not just about holding an election, democracy is about the building blocks, the rule of law, political parties, civic engagement, all those things that can make a big difference and that’s what we’ve been discussing today and we’ll go on discussing tomorrow.
On the specific question you asked: look, I’m not going to give a running commentary on different people’s tax affairs. I don’t think that would be right. I made an exception yesterday because it was a very specific case where the details seemed to have been published and it was a particularly egregious example of an avoidance scheme that seemed to me to be wrong, and I made that clear. I think the rules of the road here should be pretty frank. Tax evasion is illegal and should be pursued with all vigour by the authorities. In terms of people’s tax affairs, as I said yesterday, of course people can plan their tax affairs, put money into their pension, and that can have an effect on their tax bill and the rest of it, and that is sensible and fair and reasonable.
But as the Chancellor of the Exchequer said, some of these aggressive anti-avoidance schemes that may not be illegal are morally questionable, and I think it’s right for politicians not only to make that point but frankly to go after some of these aggressive avoidance schemes. That is what our anti-avoidance measure is going to do, because it isn’t right at a time of economic difficulty to have these very aggressive anti-avoidance schemes in existence and the Revenue has the full backing of the government in going after these schemes and making sure that people pay an appropriate level of tax.
But the impression people have is that you went after Jimmy Carr but not Gary Barlow, and Gary Barlow’s a friend of yours.
Well, as I say: no, that’s not the case at all. There was a very specific case yesterday with specific figures and the rest of it, but there are proper processes and procedures for people’s tax affairs to be properly gone into by the Revenue and that is what should happen.
Let me tell you that it’s a privilege for me to meet you in person. I’ve read a lot about you, I think you are incredible. I would like to ask you, of course you spent of time alone and we all know that you had very traumatic days, especially with your husband passing away. But I would like to ask you, apart from that incident, which day is, for you, the most difficult to be quiet, to stay in silence, although you have to tell to the world a lot of things? Thank you so much.
Aung San Suu Kyi
I don’t think I’ve ever had a day which I considered particularly difficult. There were difficult days when I worried really about our people in the NLD and other democracy activists, especially during those times when they were getting arrested almost on a daily basis. But I can’t say there was any particularly difficult day. And I really must make the point that I do not think I have made any sacrifices. I’ve been saying since I came to Britain that the only thing I feel I’m sacrificing is sleep, here, and not when I was under house arrest, so please don’t look upon what I have done as sacrifices.
Well, thank you very much indeed for coming. We mustn’t keep Daw Suu away from this important speech in parliament, but it’s been great to have you here at Number 10 Downing Street and to have this press conference. Thank you very much indeed.