Aung San Suu Kyi: democracy, human rights and national reconciliation in Myanmar

‘I don’t want our people to be crouched and crushed and flattened,’ said Aung San Suu Kyi in her address at the Sydney Opera House today. AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts

Myanmar’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was today awarded an honorary doctorate from UTS and the University of Sydney, in her first official visit to Australia.

The Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who spent 15 years under house arrest until her release in 2010, spoke of her party’s battle for democracy in Myanmar to a packed audience at the Sydney Opera House.

Along with the addressing the rule of law and ethnic conflict, Suu Kyi said amending the constitution was a key battle in ensuring Myanmar could become a truly democratic nation.

Here, we publish her formal speech in full.

Aung San Suu Kyi:

Now, first of all I’d like to thank all of you for your tremendous support. I would like to say that throughout our years of struggle we have been encouraged by friends from all over the world.

The honorary degrees which were presented to me earlier, these were not just honorary degrees. These were signs that the world was with us, that we had not been forgotten in our struggle and for this I would like to thank all of you – all of you in Australia and all over the world.

Now, the subject I had chosen to speak on formally for the next ten minutes, is Burma’s future. Not Burma’s future as predictions or even Burma’s future as hopes but for Burma’s future as choices - the choices that we have to make for the future of our country.

Now, as I said earlier, I’m a politician. I am practical, I hope, and pragmatic and I try to be honest so I want to talk about the choices that we have made - we the National League for Democracy and our supporters with regard to the future of our country and to ask for your support to help us make sure that these choices can be made as soon as possible.

The very first choice that we made with regard to our future was more than 20 years ago when we opted for democracy. Even when there was a very, very brutal – one has to be honest – military regime in power, we never let go of that choice. We were going to opt for democracy, the kind of democracy that was rooted in strong institutions and in respect for human rights but along with our dedication to democracy and human rights we never forgot the need for national reconciliation.

So these were the three pillars of the National League for Democracy – democracy, human rights and national reconciliation – because we did not want either of those three pillars to be built up at the expense of any of the other two. These three we need that our country might be the kind of union of which we had dreamed for very many decades.

Those of our leaders who fought for independence, including my father, dreamt of such a union. They wanted to see Burma as a union of many peoples who were strong in their dedication to the idea of a nation that worked together for its people, that was bound together by dedication to the best principles of nationhood.

We decided to follow that path. This was a choice we made. I have often said that I find it embarrassing when people talk about the sacrifices that I have made and I always try to point out that those were not sacrifices but choices. Throughout my life I feel I have made the choices that I thought were best and we have been wrong and we have been right. But those choices were mine and I would bear responsibility for them and accept whatever consequences came thereby. So those are the choices we made back in 1988.

In 2012 last year we had to make another choice. We had to make the choice to contest the by-elections and to work as far as possible together with the existing system to carry on with our quest to realise democracy, human rights and national reconciliation.

The National League for Democracy has been conducting public meetings across Myanmar to acquaint the locals with the issue of the constitution. EPA/Lyn Bo Bo

When we contested the elections we had an election platform built on three main planks which were rule of law, eternal peace and amendments to the constitution.

Rule of law because for very many decades Burma had been under authoritarianism which knew nothing about rule of law. It knew a lot about law and order but that is quite different from rule of law. Especially as law and order translates very unhappily into Burmese.

Now the literal translation is [spoken in foreign language] which means quiescent, crouched, crushed and flattened.

I don’t want our people to be crouched and crushed and flattened.

I want them to be able to lift up their heads in the security of rule of law. So rule of law is very important for our country especially because we have hardly any judiciary to speak of. We have a judiciary which is totally limited by the constitution which places it under the authority of the executive.

The second plank of our election platform was internal peace. That is see an end to ethnic conflict, eternal conflict. I think that I hardly need to explain why we want peace, why we want an end to all internal conflict. That is necessary if ours is to be a truly peaceful and strong union.

Then the third plank was amendments to the constitution. Some may ask why. Because this constitution is preventing our country from becoming a truly democratic nation. Those of you who think that Burma has successfully taken the path to reform would be mistaken. If you want to know why you are mistaken you only have to study the Burmese constitution. Not a pleasant task, I can tell you.

But if you read it carefully you will understand why we cannot have genuine democracy under such a constitution.

I usually mention just one point about it because that drives home it’s lack of democratic principles far more effectively than going through a number of other sections. The provision for amendments to the constitution is, I’m told, about the most rigid to be found anywhere in the world. In order to make any major amendment more than 75% of the members of the legislature must vote for it. That’s just the first step.

Now I don’t know how many of you are aware that 25% of the members of the legislature are from the military. That means that in order for the constitution to be amended the members of the military, I always say at least one brave soldier but actually more than one because we don’t have the full quota of 75% civilian electorate representatives. So the military must support any amendment of any consequent for it to go through.

This is not all. All the military members are appointed by the Commander in Chief. He alone decides who the members are going to be. Not only that, they can be changed at any time. They are not appointed for the lifetime of the parliament.

So the Commander in Chief at any time can decide who represents the military in the legislature. That means in effect that the Commander in Chief decides whether or not the constitution can be amended. Because if he says yes then the military representatives will vote yes. If he says no then they will vote no.

So I put this to you very simply, how can you call a constitution democratic when it can be amended or not amended in accordance with the will of one man who is in an unelected post. Because the Commander in Chief is not there by election. Now this is just the beginning of a series of sections in the constitution which make it totally undemocratic.

If Burma is truly to be on the road to democracy we have to amend this constitution.

Aung San Suu Kyi: ‘We want everybody in our country to be part of the process that will take us forward to genuine democracy’. EPA/Nyein Chan Naing

Now my time is almost up so I will just conclude by saying that in recent months, my party has been conducting public meetings all over the country to acquaint our people with this issue. First of all what a constitution is. Secondly, how it affects the lives of every one of its citizens. Thirdly, the history of our constitutions; we’ve had three, this is a third one. How this one was adopted. How this one was written up and why it is not democratic and why we want it amended.

We have found that the moment our people understand what is really at stake, the great majority of them - I would say that at the public meetings we find that more than 80% of them – are very much in favour of constitutional amendment.

Now, don’t think that the remaining 20% or so are against amendment. What those people want is a total rewrite of the constitution.

So this is our choice for Burma’s future. A genuine democratic constitution that will help us to uphold democracy, human rights, and we want to achieve these amendments through national reconciliation. Never forgetting that all our citizens belong to our country and the whole country belongs to all our citizens.

It’s not just the military that owns a country and we do not want the military to be left out either. We want everybody in our country to be part of the process that will take us forward to genuine democracy.