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Aung San Suu Kyi on Egypt, sanctions and raising the megabyte

Myanmar democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi delivers a speech during a ceremony to mark her father General Aung San's 96th birth anniversary at the National League for Democracy (NLD) headquarters in Yangon on February 13, 2011.


Aung San Suu Kyi couldn't help but grimace at the contrast between the role of the army on the streets of Cairo this month and the military response to past demonstrations on the streets of Rangoon. "What everybody noticed is the Egyptian army did not fire on the people, which is the greatest difference and the most critical difference," Ms. Suu Kyi said in an exclusive interview on Friday with The Globe and Mail.

At least 3,000 people were killed when Myanmar's army opened fire on demonstrators in 1988 during peaceful protests that had seen Ms. Suu Kyi emerge as the face of the country's pro-democracy movement. Deadly force was again used to quell the monk-led Saffron Revolution in 2007.

"Because the Burmese army does shoot down the people, it's not very likely that people will want to go onto the streets," Ms. Suu Kyi said by telephone from the ramshackle two-storey shack in central Rangoon that is the office of her National League for Democracy (NLD). "But on the other hand, one cannot say that the Burmese army is always going to shoot at the people."

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The 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner also gave a spirited defence of the international sanctions against her country, which have been called into question since Myanmar's recent transition – at least on paper – from military to civilian rule and Ms. Suu Kyi's own release last year after two decades spent mostly under house arrest. She said it was too soon to "reward" Myanmar's rulers, as the regime's real direction remains unclear.

She said the sanctions must be having an effect or else the government – which recently hinted that Ms. Suu Kyi and the NLD could meet "a tragic end" in supporting them – wouldn't be so obsessed with lifting them.

And she dismissed arguments that the sanctions are worsening the gap between rich and poor: "I think [the disparity]is because of the fact that what we have in Burma is not an open, market economy, but capitalist cronyism. … The real reason why a middle class has not emerged has nothing to do with sanctions at all. It's because a very privileged class is taking up all the best economic opportunities."

She applauded Canada, which has imposed the stiffest sanctions, calling herself a "co-citizen" because the House of Commons gave her honorary citizenship in 2008. "But," she added, "I would certainly like to have discussions with Canada about the sanctions [and]how we should handle them … how, when and under what circumstances sanctions should be modified. I did suggest that perhaps we should have a professional team look into the effects of sanctions. It would provide us with a useful basis for discussion."

The 65-year-old, who is recovering from a recent illness that kept her bedridden for nearly three weeks, has spent the bulk of the time since her November release meeting with small groups of people at the NLD headquarters. She has yet to travel outside Rangoon. A senior party member told The Globe that the NLD is anxious not to provoke the regime: When Ms. Suu Kyi last tried to travel outside Rangoon, in 2003, her convoy was attacked and she was placed back under arrest. While she said there are no conditions placed on her release, she said she could not contemplate another campaign-style tour until she got through a backlog at home.

She also said modern communications, many of which she had never used before her recent release, mean she does not have to spend as much time meeting supporters face to face. She now has her first home Internet connection. But she complained that the account, supplied by a state-owned Internet provider at a cost of more than $1,000, is too slow for her to access social-networking sites – the ones pro-democracy activists have famously used in countries such as Egypt and Iran.

"I think we need to – what do you call it – raise the megabyte? Because we've been given such a low megabyte that it's not a very effective line. So we've applied for a stronger link-up," she said. "As soon as the conditions are right, I want to have both Facebook and Twitter."

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About the Author
Senior International Correspondent

Mark MacKinnon is currently based in London, where he is The Globe and Mail's Senior International Correspondent. In that posting he has reported on the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, the war in eastern Ukraine and Scotland's independence referendum.Mark recently spent five years as the newspaper's Beijing correspondent. More

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