Conversations with Aung San Suu Kyi

Alan Clements

 Over the course of nine months—from October, 1995 to June, 1996—I had an exceptional series of conversations with a unique woman and, currently, the world’s most famous political dissident. Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi is, in the words of Vaclav Havel, one of the outstanding examples of the power of the powerless.
Aung San Suu Kyi told me her own story in many conversations at her home in Rangoon. The full record of our dialogue is presented in The Voice of Hope, appearing in October from Seven Stories Press. It was a journey into the soul of the struggle for freedom in this southeast Asian nation of 45 million people, many of whom, at this very moment, may be risking their lives to win the right to choose their destiny.
After having spent some eight years as a monk in a Rangoon monastery, I returned to Burma in October 1995 never having met or spoken to Aung San Suu Kyi. Yet she was not unknown to me. I had written and spoken extensively on political developments in Burma, and from everything I had learned, I was fascinated by Aung San Suu Kyi, as were so many others. She offered me, as she does to all, a great vision that places self-respect, human dignity, compassion and love above material considerations. Placed under house arrest, separated from her family for years at a time, she kept silent, and so grew into a living legend. Finally, once again speaking defiantly and acting boldly to unlock the prison doors of the SLORC military dictatorship, she will not be stopped.
This is the Aung San Suu Kyi that I came to know—a dynamic woman with an unshakable conviction, inseparable from her principles and sustained by a sense of justice and duty. She abhors hypocrisy, while admitting her own shortcomings. Her compassion is tangible. The one quality that I feel best defines her is sincerity, at the core of which is her conviction in self-improvement. Aung San Suu Kyi is a seeker, one who makes her life a vehicle for an awakening to deeper and deeper truths.
She wears her spirituality quietly, unpretentiously, and with subtlety. But this casualness makes it all the more delightful. She laughs freely and easily. Her voice is harmonious and sweet; her words are so simple at times as to take you by surprise, yet spoken without equivocation. She is straight and direct.
Does she have faults? She would be the first to admit having some. Was I satisfied with my conversations with her? Ultimately I wanted more than she was willing to give. Aung San Suu Kyi is a fiercely private woman, secret about her personal life and any aspect of her inner world that she deems private. I found her to be like a sealed vault in some areas and an open universe in others. Aung San Suu Kyi is her own person in every sense and it was this aspect of our time together that I most appreciated: a woman enjoying her sovereignty and happiness while fighting for the independence of others.
–Alan Clements

Trroughout my years of lecturing on both Buddhism and Burma’s struggle for democracy, I’ve encountered many people who wish to label you in heroic terms. Even the Vanity Fair interview with you was entitled on the cover as "Burma’s Saint Joan"...
assk: Good heavens, I hope not.
Which raises my question. In strictly Buddhist terms, I have heard you referred to as a female bodhisattva, a being striving for the attainment of Buddhahood—the perfection of wisdom, compassion and love—with the intention of assisting others to attain freedom.
assk: Oh, for goodness’ sake, I’m nowhere near such a state. And I’m amazed that people think I could be anything like that. I would love to become a bodhisattva one day, if I thought I was capable of such heights. I have to say that I am one of those people who strives for self-improvement, but I’m not one who has made, or thought of myself as fit to make a bodhisattva vow. I do try to be good (laughs). This is the way my mother brought me up. She emphasized the goodness of good, so to speak.
I’m not saying that I succeed all the time, but I do try. I have a terrible temper. I will say that I don’t get as angry now as I used to. Meditation helped a lot. But when I think somebody has been hypocritical or unjust, I have to confess that I still get very angry. I don’t mind ignorance; I don’t mind sincere mistakes; but what makes me really angry is hypocrisy. So, I have to develop awareness. When I get really angry, I have to be aware that I’m angry—I watch myself being angry. And I say to myself, well, I’m angry, I’m angry, I’ve got to control this anger. And that brings it under control to a certain extent.
Many years ago I interviewed Burma’s former Prime Minister U Nu, who stated as a matter of fact that he was a committed bodhisattva. I asked him what it was like being the Prime Minister with full control of the army and to have made the vow to become a Buddha. He said rather explicitly, if I remember correctly, that it was a major burden, a nearly constant moral dilemma. What he was saying was that being a devout Buddhist was incompatible with being a political leader who had a responsibility to use the armed forces. Don’t you feel any such dilemma?
assk: No, I do not see a dilemma. I would not think that I’m in any position to even contemplate taking the bodhisattva vow. My first concern is to abide by Buddhist principles in my worldly dealings. Of course, I do meditate. That’s because I believe that all of us, as human beings, have a spiritual dimension which cannot be neglected. Overall, I think of myself as a very ordinary Burmese Buddhist who will devote more time to religion in my older years.
When you reflect back over the years of your life, what have been the most important experiences and personal lessons that have had a significant effect on your growth as an individual?
assk: It’s very simple. What I have learned in life is that it’s always your own wrongdoing that causes you the greatest suffering. It is never what other people do to you. Perhaps this is due to the way in which I was brought up. My mother instilled in me the principle that wrongdoing never pays, and my own experience has proved that to be true. Also, if you have positive feelings towards other people they can’t do anything to you—they can’t frighten you. I think that if you stop loving other people then you really suffer.
How would you characterize yourself as a person?
assk: Well, I see myself sometimes quite differently from how other people see me. For example, all this business about my being so brave...I had never thought of myself as a particularly brave person at all. And when people say "How marvelous it is that you stuck out those six years of detention," my reaction is, "Well, what’s so difficult about it? What’s all the fuss about?" Anybody can stick out six years of house arrest. It’s those people who have had to stick out years and years in prison, in terrible conditions, that make you wonder how they did it. So I don’t see myself as all that extraordinary. I do see myself as a trier; I don’t give up. When I say, "I don’t give up," I’m not talking about not giving up working for democracy. That too, but basically I don’t give up trying to be a better person.
So it’s this inner drive, this determination towards perfection or wholeness that most characterizes you?
assk: Yes. People talk quite a lot about my determination but I don’t think of myself as a very determined person. I just think of myself as a trier.
What does Buddhist meditation mean to you?
assk: It’s a form of spiritual cultivation—a spiritual education and a purifying process. Basically, it’s learning awareness. By being aware of whatever you’re doing, you learn to avoid impurities.
What motivates you to meditate as a daily practice?
assk: The main reason why I meditate is the satisfaction that I derive from the knowledge that I am doing what I think I should do, that is, to try to develop awareness as a step towards understanding anicca (impermanence) as an experience. I have very ordinary attitudes towards life. If I think there is something I should do in the name of justice or in the name of love, then I’ll do it. The motivation is its own reward.
How instrumental has meditation been in discovering new aspects of your interior life? Has it been a process of self-discovery?

assk: I don’t know if it has been a process of self-discovery as much as one of spiritual strengthening. I was always taught to be honest with myself. Since I was quite young I had been in the habit of analyzing my own actions and feelings. So I haven’t really discovered anything new about myself. But meditation has helped to strengthen me spiritually in order to follow the right path. Also, for me, meditation is part of a way of life because what you do when you meditate is to learn to control your mind through developing awareness. This awareness carries on into everyday life. For me, that’s one of the most practical benefits of meditation—my sense of awareness has become heightened. I’m now much less inclined to do things carelessly and unconsciously.
How did you learn meditation?
assk: I did go to the Mahasi Thathana Yeiktha meditation center but that was long ago, when I was in Burma on one of my visits. I was in my twenties. But I never really meditated very much. My real meditation took off only during my years of house arrest. And for that I had to depend a lot on books. Sayadaw U Pandita’s book, In This Very Life, was a great help.
I know that you occasionally pay your respects to the Venerable Sayadaw U Pandita at his monastery here in Rangoon. May I ask you to share some aspect of his teachings that you have found helpful?
assk: I remember everything he has taught me. The most important of which was that you can never be too mindful. He said you can have too much panna (wisdom) or too much viriya (effort); but you cannot overdo mindfulness. I have been very mindful of that (laughing) throughout these last seven years. Also, he advised me to concentrate on saying things that will bring about reconciliation. And that what I should say should be truthful, beneficial, and sweet to the ears of the listener. He said that according to the Buddha’s teachings, there were two kinds of speech: one which was truthful, beneficial and acceptable, and the other which was truthful, beneficial but unacceptable, that is to say that does not please the listener.
As a Theravada Buddhist, are you still open in your spiritual attitudes to learn from other traditions, or are they fairly set?
assk: I am a Theravada Buddhist but I respect mahayana Buddhism as well as vajrayana Buddhism. Also, I have a great respect for other religions. I do not think anyone has the right to look down on anybody’s religion. I’m very interested in hearing about other people’s spiritual experiences and views. I’ve got a lot more to learn, from as many people as are prepared to teach me.
What are the elements of mahayana Buddhism that you respect?
assk: In mahayana Buddhism there’s much more emphasis on compassion than in Theravada Buddhism. I’m very sensitive to this, because we need a lot of compassion in this world. Of course, compassion is also a part of Theravada Buddhism. But I would like to see more of our people putting compassion into action.
Is it fair to say that the regime—SLORC—are Buddhists?
assk: I would not like to comment on other people’s religious inclinations. It’s not for me to say who is Buddhist or who is not. But I must say that some of their actions are not consonant with Buddhist teachings.
For example?
assk: There’s so little loving-kindness and compassion in what they say, in what they write and what they do. That’s totally removed from the Buddhist way.
Removed from people?
assk: Yes. This is the problem with a lot of authoritarian regimes, they get further and further away from the people. They create their own isolation because they frighten everybody, including their own subordinates, who feel unable to say anything that would be unacceptable.
It’s a matter of debate, but politics and religion are usually segregated issues. In Burma today, the large portion of monks and nuns see spiritual freedom and socio-political freedom as separate areas. But in truth, dharma and politics are rooted in the same issue—freedom.
assk: Indeed, but this is not unique to Burma. Everywhere you’ll find this drive to separate the secular from the spiritual. In other Buddhist countries you’ll find the same thing—in Thailand, Sri Lanka, in mahayana Buddhist countries, in Christian countries, almost everywhere in the world. I think some people find it embarrassing and impractical to think of the spiritual and political life as one. I do not see them as separate. In democracies there is always a drive to separate the spiritual from the secular, but it is not actually required to separate them. Whereas in many dictatorships, you’ll find that there is an official policy to keep politics and religion apart, in case, I suppose, it is used to upset the status quo.
The Burmese monk U Wisara, who died years ago while in prison after 143 days of a hunger strike, was an outstanding example of politically motivated non-violent protest. Indeed, Burma has a long history of monks and nuns being actively engaged in political areas when it concerns the welfare of the people. However, I wonder about today. With the crisis at such a critical moment, do you think that the sangha—the order of monks and nuns—can play a greater role in supporting the democracy movement? After all, it’s their freedom too.
assk: There are a lot of monks and nuns who have played a very courageous role in our movement for democracy. Of course, I would like to see everybody taking a much more significant role in the movement, not just monks and nuns. After all, there is nothing in democracy that any Buddhist could object to. I think that monks and nuns, like everybody else, have a duty to promote what is good and desirable. And I do think they could be more effective. In fact, they should help as far as they can. I do believe in engaged Buddhism, to use a modern term.
How might they be more effective?
assk: Simply by preaching democratic principles, by encouraging everybody to work for democracy and human rights, and by trying to persuade the authorities to begin dialogue. It would be a great help if every monk and nun in the country were to say, "What we want to see is dialogue." After all, that is the way of the Buddha. He encouraged the sangha to talk to each other. He said, "You can’t live like dumb animals. And if you have offended each other, you expiate your sins and offenses by confessing them and apologizing."
You often refer to your democracy movement here in Burma as a "revolution of the spirit" that is rooted in Buddhist principles. How much, if at all, do you draw upon the wisdom of other religions in your approach to politics
assk: I have read books on other religions but I haven’t gone into any of them particularly deeply. But I find that the idea of metta is in every religion. The Christians say God is love. And when they say, "Perfect love casts out fear," I think by perfect love they mean exactly what we mean by metta. I think at the core of all religions there is this idea of love for one’s fellow human beings.
I would like to ask you more about engaged Buddhism. I spent a few months in Vietnam this year and outside the city of Hue I visited the monastery of the first Vietnamese Buddhist monk who immolated himself back in 1963. A young monk gave me a photograph of his burning and explained that the "immolation was not an act of destruction or suicide but an act of compassion; his way of drawing world attention to the staggering suffering the Vietnamese people were forced to bear during the war." There is no doubt that such an act of engaged Buddhism is extreme. But that image prompts me to ask you how engaged Buddhism, in whatever expression it may take, could be more activated today, especially among the 1,000,000 monks and 500,000 nuns in your own country?
assk: Engaged Buddhism is active compassion or active metta. It’s not just sitting there passively saying, "I feel sorry for them." It means doing something about the situation by bringing whatever relief you can to those who need it the most, by caring for them, by doing what you can to help others.
Of course, the "sending of loving-kindness" is very much a part of our Burmese Buddhist training. But in addition to that we have got to do more to express our metta and to show our compassion. And there are so many ways of doing it. For example, when the Buddha tried to stop two sides from fighting each other, he went out and stood between them. They would have had to injure him first before they could hurt each other. So he was defending both sides. As well as protecting others at the sacrifice of his own safety.
In Burma today, many people are afraid to visit families of political prisoners in case they too are called in by the authorities and harassed. Now, you could show active compassion by coming to the families of political prisoners and offering them practical help and by surrounding them with love, compassion and moral support. This is what we are encouraging.
But fear so often overwhelms the heart before compassion has a chance to become active. As you have said, "Fear is a habit." Just the other day I was at a shop in the city xeroxing a letter to a friend and accidentally dropped the paper on the floor. The shopkeeper picked it up and while he was handing it back to me he noticed in capitals the letters "NLD." He panicked and began ripping the paper into small pieces. I asked him, "Why?" and he replied with a rather frightened face, "NLD means prison."
assk: You should have told him not to be ridiculous.
I don’t think he’s the only one who is afraid. But how can this "active compassion" express itself out on the street, to the common folk, among those where "fear is a habit"?
assk: These things are happening because there is not enough active compassion. There is a very direct link between love and fear. It reminds me of the biblical quotation, that "perfect love casts out fear." I’ve often thought that this is a very Buddhist attitude. "Perfect love" should be metta, which is not selfish or attached love. In the Metta Sutra we have the phrase "like a mother caring for her only child." That’s true metta. A mother’s courage to sacrifice herself comes out of her love for her child. And I think we need a lot more of this kind of love around the place.
I don’t mean to challenge you, but I was mugged earlier this year while waiting in a Paris subway station. And if my aggressor hadn’t sprayed me in the eyes with mace I certainly would have put up a fight. Afterwards, it made me think of the magnitude of violence in the world. We do need a lot more love around the place, but love is often an ideal. You use the metaphor of a mother’s courage to sacrifice for her child and a love that embraces even his faults, but this "child" is slitting the throats of his neighbors...
assk: I think you have not quite understood what I’ve been saying. You see, we’ve got to make metta grow. We’ve got to make people see that love is a strong, positive force for the happiness of oneself, not just for others. A journalist said to me, "When you speak to the people you talk a lot about religion, why is that?" I said, "Because politics is about people, and you can’t separate people from their spiritual values." And he said that he had asked a young student who had come to the weekend talks about this "Why are they talking about religion?" The student replied, "Well, that’s politics."
Our people understand what we are talking about. Some people might think it is either idealistic or naive to talk about metta in terms of politics, but to me it makes a lot of practical good sense. I’ve always said to the NLD that we’ve got to help each other. If people see how much we support each other and how much happiness we manage to generate among ourselves, in spite of being surrounded by weapons, threats and repression, they will want to be like us. They might say, well, there’s something in their attitude—we want to be happy too.
What is the core quality at the center of your movement?
assk: Inner strength. It’s the spiritual steadiness that comes from the belief that what you are doing is right, even if it doesn’t bring you immediate concrete benefits. It’s the fact that you are doing something that helps to shore up your spiritual powers. It’s very powerful.
Martin Luther King used the phrase "divine dissatisfaction." He encouraged his people to grow weary and tired of injustice, to become "maladjusted," as he said it, to the racist system by which they were being oppressed. Now, on one level, you speak of genuine reconciliation, but at the same time, are you also speaking to the need of the population to grow uncomfortable and to steadily increase their dissatisfaction towards SLORC?
assk: It’s not really the need to grow "uncomfortable." Nor are we trying to make the people become more dissatisfied. Our principal task is to encourage the need in people to question the situation and not just accept everything. Now, acceptance is not the same as serenity. Some people seem to think they go together. Not at all. Sometimes, the very fact that you accept what you do not want to accept and know that you should not accept, destroys the sense of serenity and inner peace, because you’re in conflict with yourself.
So the overcoming of complacency is the principal focus?
assk: Yes, complacency is very dangerous. What we want to do is to free people from feeling complacent. Actually, with a lot of people it’s not a sense of complacency either. I think that many people just accept things out of either fear or inertia. This readiness to accept without question has to be removed. And it’s very un-Buddhist. After all, the Buddha did not accept the status quo without questioning it.
Yes, he radically questioned. It’s the basis of his teachings.
assk: Yes, absolutely. In Buddhism, you know the four ingredients of success or victory: chanda—desire or will; citta—the right attitude; viriya—perseverance, and panna—wisdom. We feel that you have got to cultivate these four qualities in order to succeed. And the step prior even to these four steps is questioning. From that you discover your real desires. Then you have got to develop chanda. Chanda is not really desire. How would you describe it ?
Chanda is normally translated as the "wish to do" or intention. Every action begins with it. Where there is a will there is a way.
assk: Yes. You must develop the intention to do something about the situation. From there you’ve got to develop the right attitude and then persevere with wisdom. Only then will there be success in your endeavor. Of course, the five basic moral precepts are essential, to keep you from straying, as it were. With these we will get where we want to. We don’t need anything else.
So what you’re doing is fostering a sense of individual courage to question, to analyze...
assk: And to act. I remind the people that karma is actually doing. It’s not just sitting back. Some people think of karma as destiny or fate and that there’s nothing they can do about it. It’s simply what is going to happen because of their past deeds. This is the way in which karma is often interpreted in Burma. But karma is not that at all. It’s doing, it’s action. So you are creating your own karma all the time. Buddhism is a very dynamic philosophy and it’s a great pity that some people forget that aspect of our religion.
I’ve often noticed in Burmese Buddhist culture how people speak of the suffering they face in their present circumstances as simply the bitter fruit of past unwholesome karma or actions. Such people will say "I brought this suffering on myself through my own past ignorance and therefore I must bear it in the present."
assk: I think it’s an excuse for doing nothing and it’s completely contrary to our Buddhist views. If what is happening now is a result of what happened before, all the more reason why you should work harder now to change the situation...
Yesterday, before your public talk began, a Rangoon University student asked me bluntly, "Should Burma’s democracy movement engage in an armed struggle rather than continuing in a non-violent way?" I told him I would ask you the question.
assk: I do not believe in an armed struggle because it will perpetrate the tradition that he who is best at wielding arms, wields power. Even if the democracy movement were to succeed through force of arms, it would leave in the minds of the people the idea that whoever has greater armed might wins in the end. That will not help democracy.
Daw Suu, how effective is non-violence in the modern world, and more specifically, with regimes that seem devoid of sensitivity or any sense of moral shame and conscience?
assk: Non-violence means positive action. You have to work for whatever you want. You don’t just sit there doing nothing and hope to get what you want. It just means that the methods you use are not violent ones. Some people think that non-violence is passiveness. It’s not so.
In your country there were numerous brave young men and women who literally faced the bullets and bayonets, in their willingness to be non-violently active, yourself included. And the results left at least 3,000 dead. Do you ever have doubts about the effectiveness of non-violent political activism in the face of armed aggression?
assk: No, I don’t have any doubts about it. I know that it is often the slower way and I understand why our young people feel that non-violence will not work. Especially when the authorities in Burma are prepared to talk to insurgent groups, but not to an organization like the NLD which carries no arms. That makes a lot of people feel that the only way you can get anywhere is by bearing arms. But I cannot encourage that kind of attitude. Because if we do, we will be perpetuating a cycle of violence that will never come to an end.
Then let me ask the question in another way. Daw Suu, I would like to understand you. Is non-violence an immutable ethical and spiritual principle that will never alter in your approach to the struggle?
assk: We have always said that we will never disown those students and others who have taken up violence. We know that their aim is the same as ours. They want democracy and they think the best way to go about it is through armed struggle. And we do not say that we have the monopoly on the right methods of achieving what we want. Also, we cannot guarantee their security. We can’t say, "Follow us in the way of non-violence and you’ll be protected," or that we’ll get there without any casualties. That’s a promise we can’t make.
We have chosen the way of non-violence simply because we think it’s politically better for the country in the long run to establish that you can bring about change without the use of arms. This has been a clear NLD policy from the beginning. Here, we’re not thinking about spiritual matters at all. Perhaps in that sense, we’re not the same as Mahatma Gandhi, who would have probably condemned all movements that were not non-violent. I’m not sure. But he did say at one time that if he had to choose between violence and cowardice, he would choose violence. So even Gandhi, who was supposed to be the great exponent of non-violence, was not somebody who did not make any exceptions...
But what about choosing violence out of compassion, if it’s the right word, rather than using it as an option instead of cowardice? Nelson Mandela writes "Leadership commits a crime against its own people if it hesitates to sharpen its political weapons where they have become less effective." Isn’t he saying that one’s attachment to non-violence becomes in fact an act of violence towards one’s own people, when the non-violent approach is no longer effective?
assk: It depends on the situation and I think that in the context of Burma today, non-violent means are the best way to achieve our goal. But I certainly do not condemn those who fight the "just fight," as it were. My father did, and I admire him greatly for it.
I know it’s a nice belief to hold, that "in the end, right will prevail." What evidence do you have to say, "The light will have to come"? It seems like just the opposite is closer to reality, for so many millions of people around the world.
assk: Whatever you may say, the world is better. Because in this day and age you can’t just drag someone to a public place, chop off his head, and not have anyone say a word about it. Which government today would hang, draw and quarter somebody, in full view of the public, and think that he’d get away with it? We are less barbaric; people as a whole are more civilized. This is not to say that horrible tortures do not go on. They go on behind the scenes but at least people are beginning to learn that this is not acceptable.
Take a place like England, which is supposed to be the mother of democracy. I’m sure there are lots of criticisms that you can make about England but if they had caught the Soviet spy, Kim Philby, and they had hung, drawn and quartered him in public, do you think the English people would have stood for it? Even though he was a traitor, those days are long gone. So people have progressed and not just in democratic countries but even in the old Soviet Union. Of course, they executed traitors but they certainly would not have taken them out into Red Square and chopped their heads off in full view of the public. So that’s progress. It shows that people are beginning to understand that barbarism is not acceptable, that it’s something to be ashamed of, something we must try to eliminate. You can’t deny that there has been an increasing movement to control the savage instincts of man.
I would like to immediately jump in there on the issue...
assk: Oh, go on.
There have been more wars and murders in the twentieth century than all previous centuries combined. And Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian writer and environmental activist, was hung in full public view of the entire world. Furthermore, CNN and the BBC covered the Bosnian nightmare, twenty-four hours a day, for forty-three months of "ethnic cleansing," in full view of the public. I need more evidence of how you determine your views.
assk: Let’s put it this way. The values of civilization have become more dominant.
When European civilization spread, in most places it did so based on a policy of extermination of the indigenous populations. Perhaps from that perspective, there might be more dominant values of civilization today than before. But, I’m not sure at all that I’m convinced.
assk: Take Burma under the Burmese kings: those who were out of favor with the king were executed in very cruel ways. Now, Burma has been accused of many, many human rights violations. But do the authorities ever admit them? They do not. They will say, "No, we have not perpetrated these deeds." Whereas in the days of the old Burmese kings, there was no question of denying it. They would just do it. It was their prerogative and nobody would dare to question them. And they would not think there was any need for them to even pretend that they had not done these things. So that’s progress.
I think it was His Holiness the Dalai Lama who said that we should "foster an appreciation, a real love, for our shared human status." There is something beautiful and appealing about the notion. And yet it seems foreign... When I conjure up ghastly images of Auschwitz and death camps, the sea of cracked skulls from Pol Pot’s killing fields, hacked-up bodies of Rwandan Hutus, or women screaming in Serbian rape camps, my heart closes. I wonder if the perpetrators of such atrocities can even be considered as human beings. Quite frankly, they seem sub-human. And, Daw Suu, you seem to live and breathe your country’s suffering. How do you manage to keep your heart open to the pain?
assk: It depends on the circles in which you move. I think I’m very fortunate that the people around me have such open hearts. Because we can afford to be loving with each other, the habit of opening our hearts is always there. Also, if you know that there are people in the world who are worthy of love, and whom you could open up to without danger, I think you are more ready to accept that there are others too who could be lovable.
I’ll be specific. How do you look into the eyes of SLORC without feeling a sense of outrage, really?
assk: People often come to me and ask the same question, "Why don’t you feel any sense of vindictiveness?" I think some of the people who ask this question don’t believe that we are actually free from such feelings. It’s very difficult to explain. The other day Uncle U Kyi Maung, Uncle U Tin U and I were talking with a group of our NLD delegates and we were laughing over this. Apparently, you had asked Uncle U Kyi Maung how he felt the day he heard I was going to be placed under arrest. And he replied that he didn’t feel anything at all. And you were surprised by that...
Not only surprised, but I was shocked. Because what he said was that despite the fact that armed soldiers had surrounded your house, and it was likely that you would be taken to Insein Prison, you all just laughed about the crisis and started cracking jokes.
assk: Yes, and we didn’t feel anything at all. So many journalists have asked me: "How did you feel when you were released?" I have said, "I felt nothing at all." (laughing) I had a vague idea that I should feel something, but my real concern was, what should I do now? Then a journalist asked if I were elated or felt happy. I said, "No...none of these things. I always knew that I was going to be free one day. The point was, well, what do I do now?" But a lot of people don’t believe me.
They assume that it’s some form of denial or repression in you?
assk: Exactly. (laughing) It’s very strange.
When you speak of "feeling nothing at all" after your release from detention, are you saying that the past is simply irrelevant?
assk: I don’t think you can just forget the past but one should use experiences of the past to build up a better present and future.
What about the victims who don’t have the resiliency or the depth of spirit that you and your colleagues have, and do feel violated and made resentful by the atrocities committed towards them?
assk: Of course. Of course. This is why we are talking about the connection of truth and reconciliation. I think that first of all, their sufferings have to be acknowledged. You can’t just wipe away the past. If you try, there will always be this ocean of festering resentment within those who have truly suffered. They will feel that their sufferings have been pushed aside, as though they’ve suffered for nothing; as though they’ve undergone torture for nothing; as though their sons and fathers had died for nothing.
Those people must have the satisfaction of knowing that their sufferings have not been in vain, and this very fact, that there’s an admission of the injustice done, will take away a lot of the resentment. Mind you, people are different. Some will always want vengeance and will keep on thirsting for it even if everyone says: "Yes, we know how you’ve suffered, or your son or daughter." There will always be people who can never forgive. But we must always try to. In Chile they had a council for truth and reconciliation and there’s one now in South Africa, under Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I very much believe in it. The admission of injustice, to a certain extent, will prevent it from happening again. People will realize that if you do such things, they get known. You can’t hide them.
Do you think it’s essentially a human right that some form of justice is still required, beyond just an acknowledgment of the anguish and suffering a family or an individual has been forced to bear?
assk: Let’s consider it as satisfaction rather than as a need for justice. If you talk about justice as a "human right" it could be misinterpreted as something done under the law. In many countries where dictatorships have fallen and democracies have arisen, you will find that it’s not always possible to take full legal action against those who have perpetrated injustices. For various reasons there have had to be compromises. So if one talks about "justice," it might give the wrong impression that everything that has happened must be tried in a court, and that justice must be done in the legal sense. I would rather say that something must be done to satisfy the victims and the families of those victims.
Are you disappointed by the international response to Burma?
assk: No. Of course, we always hope that it will get better and there will be more sympathy and support for the principles and values that we’re struggling for. However, we should consider the fact that very few people in the world even knew where Burma was before 1988.
Do you feel that it is ever appropriate or justified for one country to intervene in the internal affairs of another country whose powers are creating hell for the population? Is it the duty of a powerful country to help the weaker one in such instances?
assk: I think it is better that the international community carries out this responsibility as a whole. There are far too many complications that arise when one country is given either the responsibility or the right to interfere in the affairs of another country. But I do think that the international community as a whole should recognize that it has got responsibilities. It can’t ignore grave injustices that are going on within the borders of any particular country.
On the issue of foreign investment in Burma, hundreds of millions of dollars are pouring into your country, with more waiting in bank accounts. I assume that many of these business people want the truth. What would be the most appropriate way for these potential investors to cut through SLORC propaganda, and get to the facts about what’s really going on in your country?
assk: They could always start by talking to us. We could give them a good idea of what is going on... if they’re interested in finding out the truth. But I think a lot of people just don’t want to know.
What, in essence, does truth mean to you?
assk: In the end, truth cannot really be separated from sincerity and goodwill. I cannot claim that in every situation I am able to see the truth. But one does one’s best to be sincere in evaluating a situation, making an honest distinction between what is right and what is not. If you do so you are on the side of truth. But truth is a large concept. Pure truth, absolute truth, is beyond ordinary beings like us because we cannot see things absolutely and as a whole. But we try our best. I think of all of us who are on the side of truth as struggling towards it, rather than in full possession of it. Truth is something towards which we struggle all the time.
To what extent is truth subjective, vis-a-vis ultimate truth?
assk: The search for truth is in a sense the struggle to overcome subjectivity. By that I mean that you’ve got to remove as far as possible your own prejudices and distance yourself from them in assessing any given situation.
Learning the art of objectively relating to our subjectivity?
assk: The search for truth has to be accompanied by awareness. And awareness and objectivity are very closely linked. If you are aware of what you’re doing, you have an objective view of yourself. And if you are aware of what other people are doing you become more objective about them too. For example, awareness means that when you are aware of the fact that somebody is shouting, you don’t think to yourself, "What a horrible man. " That’s purely subjective. But if you are aware you know that he’s shouting because he’s angry or frightened, that’s objectivity. Otherwise, without awareness, all kinds of prejudices start multiplying.

Alan Clements is founder of the Burma Project USA and an expert on the democracy movement in Burma. He lived in Burma for eight years, for much of that time as a Buddhist monk. He is the author of Burma: The Next Killing Fields? (1991), and co-author of the photographic book Burma’s Revolution of the Spirit (1991). He was an advisor on the film Beyond Rangoon and speaks frequently on Burma’s struggle for democracy. The Voice of Hope will be published in October by Seven Stories Press. 1997 Alan Clements. Reprinted by arrangement.