News story

Transcript: Aung San Suu Kyi press conference

Press conference given by Prime Minister David Cameron and Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma.

Prime Minister

Well, thank you, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. It is a huge honour to be standing here with you. And your struggle, your bravery, your courage for standing up for the things that you believe in has been inspirational for people across the world who want to see democracy, who want to see freedom, who want to see human rights. And everyone in the United Kingdom has been inspired by your struggle.

Today, we can see, in your country, that there are changes taking place, reforms taking place, that I know you welcome, and that we welcome. And that is one of the reasons I wanted to come today, because we care about what happens in your country. It is an incredibly beautiful country with extraordinary people. It shouldn’t be as poor as it is. It shouldn’t have suffered under dictatorship for as long as it has, and things don’t have to be that way. And there is the real prospect of change. I’m very much committed to working with you and trying to help make sure that your country makes those changes.

I met with President Thein Sein today. And I think there are prospects for change in Burma, and I think it is right for the rest of the world to respond to those changes. Of course, we must respond with caution, with care. We must always be sceptical and questioning, because we want to know those changes are irreversible. But, as we’ve discussed, I think it is right to suspend the sanctions that there are against Burma - to suspend them, not to lift them, and obviously not to include the arms embargo. Because I do think it’s important to send a signal that we want to help see the changes that can bring the growth of freedom, of human rights and democracy in your country.

Clearly, there are still so many things that need to happen. It is good that some political prisoners have been released, but we want to see more political prisoners released. It is good that you have had the by-elections - and many congratulations on your successful elections - but clearly we all look forward to the general election in 2015. It is good that there has been some progress with the terrible ethnic conflicts that have harmed this country for so many years; but clearly we need to see a real political solution to those conflicts in the months and the years to come.

Let me just end again by saying what an inspiration it is to have followed your struggle, to have watched your incredible courage and the light that you have shone to all those around the world who want to see freedom, democracy and greater human rights. What’s happening here in Burma, I believe, shows that these things can happen, and they can happen in a peaceful way; and that is something we should be hugely encouraged by. Burma not only needs political progress, but it desperately needs economic progress and greater wealth too. It is a tragedy that one in three children in this country is malnourished, and that there is so much poverty. And I’m committed that Britain should do what it can to help not only with political progress, but also development and economic progress too.

But thank you again for giving me such a warm welcome today - it is an honour to stand by your side.

Aung San Suu Kyi

Thank you. It’s a great pleasure to have Prime Minister Cameron here at this time, because I think this is the right time - absolutely the right time - for him to come. As you all know, we’ve just had by-elections, and this means a step closer towards democracy. We still have a long way to go, but we believe that we can get there. I believe that President Thein Sein is genuine about democratic reforms, and I’m very happy that Prime Minister Cameron thinks that the suspension of sanctions is the right way to respond to this.

I support the suspension rather than the lifting of sanctions, because this would be an acknowledgment of the rule of the President and other reformers. This suspension would have taken place because of the steps taken by the President and other reformers, and it would also make it quite clear to those who are against reform that, should they try to obstruct the way of the reformers, then sanctions could come back. So this would strengthen the hand of the reformers - not just the suspension, but the fact that there is always a possibility of sanctions coming back again if the reformers are not allowed to proceed smoothly.

We in Burma have always appreciated the help that friends have given us over these last decades, especially Britain and other very close friends. They have always understood our need for democracy, our desire to take our place in the world, and the aspirations of our people. And we have always shared in the belief that what is necessary for Burma is an end to all ethnic conflict; respect for human rights, which would include the release of political prisoners; and the kind of development aid which will help to empower our people and take our country further towards the road to genuine democracy.

I’m very, very happy to be able to welcome all of you - not just the Prime Minister, but all of you who are here today - to Burma, and as this is the time of the water festival, it will give you a good opportunity to wash away all your sins, should you have any - perhaps you don’t have any - and to get yourself nice and pure and happy for the New Year that will be coming on 17th April. That is the first day of the Burmese New Year - 1374. And I very much hope that this is a year which will not only bring happiness to the people of Burma, democracy to our country, but also closer and better friendship between our countries. Thank you.

Question

Even by suspending sanctions, is there not a risk that that removes the pressure on the government to reform? They may simply feel they’ve done enough.

Prime Minister

I don’t believe that’s the case. Clearly we have to be cautious; we have to be careful; we have to be questioning; we want to know that the reform process is irreversible. But I think it’s right, when President Thein Sein has made these steps, it’s right for the world to respond. I think suspension is the right step, rather than lifting sanctions, because it will strengthen, as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has said, it will strengthen his hand in arguing it’s necessary to keep reforming. All courses of action are full of risk, but I think this is the right step forward for those of us who want to see further progress towards democracy and freedom and rights here in Burma.

And let’s not forget how far things have come. We’re standing in a house where you were, for decades, under house arrest. You’re sitting in a garden where you were barely allowed to walk or to stand.

Aung San Suu Kyi

It used to be a jungle anyway, you couldn’t have stood there!

Prime Minister

And only three years ago, you were threatened with prison. So things have come some way; we want them to go much further, but we agree this is the right response today.

Question

We have experienced disappointment before. Why do you both think that this time it is different - that this time, the regime is indeed prepared to give away power?

Aung San Suu Kyi

Could I say that what we experienced before was never disappointment but setbacks? We were prepared for all eventualities when we started out on the road to democracy, and we have had setbacks, but I can’t say that we were disappointed. Those were not what we would have wanted, but we were always prepared to keep going forward, and because we were prepared to keep going forward and prepared to take calculated risks, we are where we are now. And in order to proceed further, we must keep on taking calculated risks where necessary, which is why I agree with Prime Minister Cameron that suspension of sanctions is the right thing to do. In any case we are determined to succeed, so please let’s not talk about disappointments.

Question

To Aung San Suu Kyi: the Prime Minister has been talking about Burma as a bright spark, an example, a beacon; do you think he’s right to pile such weight of expectation on yourself and on your country? And Prime Minister, could I just ask you: why do you think that the military is going down this route of reform? You can see economically why they might, but politically they’re just heading towards a wipe-out in 2015.

Aung San Suu Kyi

I think the world loves a happy ending, and I don’t at all mind that Prime Minister Cameron would like to see a happy ending to the democracy story in Burma. We will work towards that; we would certainly not like to disappoint our friends.

Prime Minister

I think we should be optimistic, but cautiously and carefully optimistic. I can’t speak for why the regime is acting in the way that it is, but I think it’s clear, when you look at Burma’s neighbours, you can see economies that are growing more quickly. You can see poverty that is being tackled more effectively. You’re seeing in other countries - including those I’ve visited this week - democracy going hand-in-hand with greater economic success and growth. And I just hope that the moves that are being made by this regime - and remember, they have released political prisoners, they have loosened some of the practices on censorship, they are trying to deal with some of the ethnic conflicts. They haven’t done enough - there’s much more that they need to do and we will keep that pressure on. That is why suspending sanctions rather than lifting sanctions is the right answer.

But I think it’s right to take this step. If we really want to see the chance of greater freedom and democracy in Burma, we should respond when they take action and if they keep moving the ship of economic reform forward and the ship of political reform forward then we should be prepared to respond. That is the right thing to do. It may be a bold thing to do but for the sake of a country that has been crying out for freedom after decades of dictatorship and that is crying out for a stronger economy after so much grinding poverty, it must be worth taking that risk and taking that step.

Question

May I ask Aung San Suu Kyi - you said not to talk about disappointment but you also talked about those who would like to stop the move to democracy. What is their strength, do you think? Presumably they are mostly in the military. What is their strength and what do you think would make them change their minds or hold - stay their hands?

Aung San Suu Kyi

I don’t know what their strength is but certainly it does not in any way match up with the strength of the people who want democracy. If you were here during the two months before the election, the by-elections, you would have noticed how keen the people of Burma are on taking the fate of the country into their own hands and I don’t think the strength of those who do not want democracy could compare in any way with the strength of the people’s desire for democracy. This is why I’m optimistic but cautiously. I’ve always said I’m a cautious optimist - that’s in my nature - so although we are on one hand cautiously optimistic, on the other hand we are determined to make sure that the will of the people should prevail.

Prime Minister

They were remarkable election results. We were joking earlier that when democracy becomes more embedded you can’t expect to win 45 by-elections in a row - this has not been my experience. But it was a stunning result and shows the strength of feeling there is for democracy and progress in this country.

Question

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi - can I ask you? You’ve written that one of the ways in which your father showed constant courage was that he parlayed with the enemy. Do you believe that you’re parlaying with the enemy? And another thing you’ve written about is how you want to create a revolution of the spirit. Are you embarking on a journey that shows that revolution of the spirit that you wrote about?

Aung San Suu Kyi

I believe in progress. My father parlayed with the enemy. I would like to think that I am parlaying with the people who are no longer our enemies and that would be progress. And with regard to the revolution of the spirit, I think I can only repeat again what I just said later that if you had been here just before the elections, you would have seen that there was a revolution of the spirit taking place among the people of Burma. People who had been so cowed just two years ago had decided that they were going to assert themselves and that they were going to be the ones who decided how this nation was going to be run.

Prime Minister

I think  there is one other element of progress that I hope we can move forward on today and that is this: for many years Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was allowed - if she wanted to - to leave this country. You wrote that they would roll out the red carpet all the way to the aeroplane and put you onto it but never let you return. I hope that today - and I have invited Daw Suu today to come to London in June and to come to the United Kingdom in June, to also see your beloved Oxford. And that I think is a sign - if we are able to do this - of huge progress, that you will be able to leave your country to return to your country and to continue your work as a member of parliament.

Aung San Suu Kyi

Well yes, two years ago I would have said, ‘Thank you for the invitation but sorry’ but now I am able to say, ‘Well, perhaps’ - and that’s great progress.

Question

I’ve got a question for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Can I ask the chances of your attending the parliament?

Aung San Suu Kyi

I’m afraid I can’t tell you that yet because we’re working on the technicalities.

Question

What if they refused to change the voting, what would you decide?

Aung San Suu Kyi

I don’t think I would like to take such a pessimistic view of the government’s desire for democratic change.

Question

Is there a Plan B?

Aung San Suu Kyi

Well I won’t even talk to you about my Plan A let alone my Plan B!

Question

Mr Prime Minister, you mention about suspension of the sanctions except arms embargo. Can you tell us more specifics? What types of sanctions you are thinking especially to be lifted by the European Union? And what are the specific benchmarks or markers that have to be met before sanctions to be ended? Thank you.

Prime Minister

The argument that we will be making with our European Union colleagues is that when the sanctions come up for ending in April that we should instead of lifting them entirely, we should suspend them, so make sure they are still capable of being put back in place, but they should be suspended. And this sanction suspension should cover everything apart from the arms embargo. I think this will give the greatest level of certainty and clarity. It will show to the regime that we respect and welcome the progress that has been made on political prisoners, on political freedom, but it is suspension not lifting and so if this progress is not irreversible then sanctions could be re-imposed.

But this sanction - let me be clear - this covers everything apart from the arms embargo and any other specific measures that Britain itself would have put in place in terms of discouragement. So I think this is a very clear message, but let me be absolutely clear: we know there is still much, much more that needs to be done. As the President himself has acknowledged, there are more changes that need to be made. We are not starry-eyed or credulous about this, we know what a long road needs to be travelled between now and 2015 but the right thing to do for the world is to encourage this change and to believe in the possibility of peaceful progress towards democracy.

Question

Just in terms of time frame, you are thinking around 23rd April?

Prime Minister

This should happen in April if everything goes to plan.

Question

Mr Prime Minister, what are your views on the Chinese influence on the Myanmar and Asia and how important is Myanmar’s position in the Asian geo-politics?

Prime Minister

I think the extraordinary thing about your country is this is, in many ways, the crossroads of Asia. It is a beautiful country, a country endowed with enormous advantages and wealth and resources and it shouldn’t be a country as poor as it is today. And I think there are huge opportunities for cooperation and trade and working with your neighbours and with countries further away like my own. So I am hugely optimistic if we can make these political changes that Burma can have a very bright economic future. There’s no reason why your country shouldn’t be growing and succeeding in the way that other neighbouring countries have done. And as for the relationship with China, that is always going to be a matter for your country and for your politicians, but I think it’s in everyone’s interests that we see a China that is growing and succeeding as part of the world economy. Shall we have one last question?

Question

I have two questions. The first one is for David Cameron. I hear that you are adding to the aid package for helping Myanmar people - yes? Is right?

Prime Minister

Yes, Britain is the largest bi-lateral aid donor to Burma. We’re very proud of that. That money does not go to the government, that is money that goes in humanitarian aid via non-governmental organisations and in other ways to help feed people, to help improve maternal health, to help vaccinate children, to try and make sure that there is a better quality of life and as the… your country develops and as sanctions are suspended there will be further opportunities to make sure our aid is not only helping to save lives as it does today in a country with high childhood mortality but also to make sure it helps enhance the capacity of the country to have [indistinct]… to tackle problems such as corruption and the rule of law and the honest delivery of politics.

So we are committed to Burma. We are a friend of Burma. We want to see your country succeed. We think there is immense potential. We think you have struggled and suffered for too long under dictatorship, that you deserve the dignity, the freedom, the choice, the democracy and that economic progress can bring and we want to be your partners in helping you to achieve that.

Aung San Suu Kyi

[Burmese] I think we are going to bring this press conference to an end because all those who have said that they were going to ask questions have already asked their questions so thank you very much.

Prime Minister

Thank you very much, thank you.

Help us improve GOV.UK

Please don't include any personal or financial information, for example your National Insurance or credit card numbers.