BANGKOK—Aung San Suu Kyi told world leaders and investors in Bangkok on Friday morning that continued reforms in Burma will “depend on how committed the military is to the process.”
“I recognize that the president is not the only man in government,” she said, reiterating her trust in President Thein Sein’s commitment to political change in Burma. Nonetheless, she cautioned that “I cannot say we have achieved all the basics of a democratic society.”
For the most part, Suu Kyi’s address to the World Economic Forum (WEF)—a gathering of international business executives, officials, NGOs and government officials—focused on economic issues. In an acknowledgement of the then military government’s controversial name-change from Burma to Myanmar in 1989, Suu Kyi told the WEF that she was in Bangkok to talk about the future of “a place some of us call Burma, some of us call Myanmar.”
The 66-year-old appealed to potential investors in the audience not to focus solely on profit-making in Burma. “We do not want investment to mean greater corruption and greater inequality,” she said, asking financiers not to “think too much about how investment will benefit you.”
Suu Kyi said that Burma needs practical education and job-creation as a first priority, given widespread poverty and unemployment. “Without empowerment of people there is no point talking about democracy,” she said. “We need the kind of education that enables our people to earn a basic living.”
Stressing the need to create a viable labor market in Burma and to offset mass youth unemployment, which she described as “a timebomb,” Suu Kyi said, “we need vocational training and non-formal education as a priority.”
The recently-elected parliamentarian and leader of the main opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) is in Thailand to meet Burmese migrant workers and refugees as well as to address the WEF. It is her first foreign trip in 24 years since she returned to Burma in 1988 to tend to her sick mother, then suddenly becoming leader of the country’s resistance to the junta. That crusade saw her win a 1990 election but spend 15 years in various forms of detention under Burma’s military rulers.
Despite transition to a nominally-civilian government in 2011, that military remains the most powerful force in a changing Burma. Asked by The Irrawaddy about her hopes for amending the country’s Constitution, which gives the army sway over civilian institutions in many areas, Suu Kyi said that change will be difficult to achieve and remains a long-term project.
“We need more than 75 percent of Parliament to vote for change,” she reminded. “Twenty-five percent of the Parliament is reserved for the army, so we need at least one soldier to vote for change, as well as the remaining 75 percent.”
The NLD leader said there needs to be “national commitment” from all sectors of Burma’s society. “This will help us achieve the national reconciliation that is so important,” she added.
Suu Kyi said that ethnic political parties were the strongest supporters of the NLD during the long years of her house arrest, and cited this as proof that “we can build trust together,” referring to relations between the majority Burmans, of which Suu Kyi is one, and the 130-plus ethnic minorities that make up around 30-40 percent of the country’s population.
Larger groups, such as the Shan, Karen, Mon and Kachin, have fought with the government army throughout the post-independence era and conflict is ongoing in Kachin State near the Sino-Burmese border.
Asked by The Irrawaddy about what legislation the NLD would push in Burma’s Parliament, after the party’s April 1 by-election landslide, Suu Kyi said that existing laws would first need overhauling, before the party would push new codes.
“We could end up with too many new laws too quickly,” she replied. “It might be difficult to digest a rush of new laws.”
“For example the licensing laws in various sectors could be changed,” she said, mentioning telecommunications, where existing regulations mean that most ordinary Burmese, who live on around US $1-2 per day, cannot afford a mobile phone.
The 1991 Nobel peace laureate has so far stolen the show at the WEF, with visiting diplomats and executives jostling to take her photo or be snapped alongside her. Suu Kyi addressed the WEF for 15 minutes, before fielding questions from forum head Klaus Schwab. She then held a 30-minute press conference in an upstairs room in Bangkok’s marble and chandelier-laden Shangri-La hotel, the conference venue.
Suu Kyi met with Burmese migrant workers in the Thai fishing port hub of Mahachai on Wednesday and Thursday, either side of a meeting with Thai Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubamrung where she raised the rights of Burma’s 2-3 million migrant workers in Thailand.
Suu Kyi will fly to the Thailand-Burma border on Saturday to visit the largest of the nine refugee camps hosting 140,000 Burmese war-displaced civilians along the frontier, at Mae La, and will visit Ireland, Norway, Switzerland and the UK later in June.