Freed Myanmar Activist: Fight For Human Rights Continues

Myanmar democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi was released from 7-and-a-half years of detention. The 65-year-old Nobel Peace laureate has indicated she would continue with her political activity in the fight for human rights. Host Michel Martin speaks about the release with Jared Genser, counsel to Suu Kyi and president of Freedom Now, which works to free political prisoners around the world; and with Zoya Phan fohn, international coordinator of the human rights organization "Burma Campaign U.K."

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now we turn to the extraordinary release of former Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. She had been held under house arrest by the military junta ruling the country, which was formerly known as Burma, for seven years. In an interview with the BBC's John Simpson, after her release, she had this to say.

(Soundbite of interview)

Ms. AUNG SAN SUU KYI (Former General Secretary, National League for Democracy, Burma): Change, a great change means a revolution, whether it's violent or nonviolent. And we would like a nonviolent, peaceful revolution.

MARTIN: Joining us to talk about the release of Aung San Suu Kyi is Jared Genser. He's the president of Freedom Now. That's a nongovernmental organization working to free political prisoners around the world. He served as international counselor to Suu Kyi for the last four years. Also with us is Zoya Phan. She is the international coordinator for Burma Campaign U.K., and the author of a memoir, "Undaunted: My Struggle for Freedom and Survival in Burma." I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. JARED GENSER (President, Freedom Now): Thanks for having me.

Ms. ZOYA PHAN (International Coordinator, Burma Campaign U.K.): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: And Zoya, we can hear you now, thanks for joining us.

Mr. Genser, I just have to ask, this feels like a surprise. Was this anticipated? Did you expect that Aung Sun Suu Kyi would be freed this week?

Mr. GENSER: You know, honestly, I wasn't going to be surprised either way. On the one hand, you know, her house arrest term was indeed expiring. They had extended it two years beyond the maximum amount allowable under the law. And of course they had just finished holding elections a week ago in Burma that were anything but free and fair. In fact, they were patently fraudulent.

And so, no, I wasn't surprised she was released, especially because, frankly, in the last several years, the junta has not compromised in the least with the international community at all or with her political party, the National League for Democracy and Ethnic Leaders in the country.

And so as a result, you know, I think from their perspective, they have completed the elections that they claimed were going to be democratic. And they see no role for her to play in the future. And so I think it's probably a sign that they feel emboldened by the results of the elections that they of course fixed.

MARTIN: But people were allowed to gather outside her home. And many people did. Why do you think that is?

Mr. GENSER: Well, she remains deeply popular in Burma.

MARTIN: No, I was asking why do you think that the junta allowed people to congregate there?

Mr. GENSER: Because, I mean, historically they've really had no choice in those kinds of circumstances. It's either that or resort to violence. It's one thing, I think, like the Saffron Revolution in 2007 where there were hundreds and thousands in the street.

In this case, when she's been out of house arrest before, and she has several times over the years, you know, tens of thousands of people will typically come out to hear what she has to say and particularly after her release people were very eager to see that. So I think that they would recognize that that had to be part of the deal in letting her out.

MARTIN: Zoya Phan, what is your analysis of this?

Ms. PHAN: Well, first of all, I'm very pleased and I'm very thrilled to see our democracy (unintelligible) has been released because we are being taken entirely for seven years. And we are very pleased simply because people in Burma have hopes on her and we know that the regime wants to silence her and the regime wants people in Burma to forget about her and the regime wants the world to forget about her.

But we also know that the main reason behind her release is because the regime - it is only for their public relations. It is not about democratic response and it is not a link to the democratization process in Burma. So we would like to make sure the international community that (unintelligible) this isn't translated into change is on the way because the situation in Burma hasn't changed.

We still have 2,203 political prisoners in Burma. They remain in jail, and they are tortured and they are denied medical treatment and they should be released immediately. And at the same time, the dictatorship continue attacking ethnic minorities in different parts of Burma. So it is time - international community to put more pressure on the dictatorship in Burma to help them force them into negotiation with Aung Sun Suu Kyi and other ethnic leaders.

MARTIN: Zoya Phan, we thank you so much for joining us, we're going to say goodbye now just because your line is very difficult to hear, and we do hope you will join us again. That was Zoya Phan. She's the international coordinator for Burma Campaign U.K. and the author of a memoir, "Undaunted: My Struggle for Freedom and Survival in Burma."

Jared Genser, if you would just clarify something that Zoya had to say. She was telling us how many political prisoners still remain in Burma, or Myanmar. How many is that? What is your understanding?

Mr. GENSER: The rough estimate is about 2,200. And so as Zoya aptly pointed out, the situation is relatively unchanged in Burma. Her release - Aung Sun Suu Kyi's release is not, unfortunately, a Nelson Mandela moment like 1990, where the world understood that this was the beginning of the end of the apartheid-era government. And four years later we saw democratic elections and President Mandela elected into office.

On the contrary, in the last several years, in the run up to the most recent elections, the regime has not compromised even in the slightest with the international community, and frankly, I don't think that they have any interest in engaging right now with her or her political party in dialogue, let alone making any concessions to her or anyone else.

MARTIN: In her first public comments, which she had an interview with the BBC's John Simpson, we played a little bit earlier. I'm going to play a little bit more. She took a very, I don't know how else to describe it, sort of - a very gentle or non-confrontational tone with the military. Let me just play that clip.

(Soundbite of BBC Interview)

Ms. SUU KYI: I don't want them to fall. I don't want to see the military falling. I want to see the military rising to dignified types of professionalism and true patriotism and do what is best for the country and what the people want.

I think it's quite obvious what the people want. The people just want better lives based on security and on freedom. So that's what it all comes down to in the end. Two things: Freedom and security. And this is what needs to be (unintelligible) finally in any society. And I think too often the authorities in Burma keep using security as an excuse for depriving the people of the basic freedoms to which they should be entitled.

MARTIN: So, Jared Genser, what role - I take your point, you're saying that the elections are over, and so therefore, Aung San Suu Kyi can't run as a candidate because the elections are over. But what can she do?

Mr. GENSER: Well, I think what she's going to be in a position to do is to speak out about what she believes needs to happen with respect to the future of her country. And she has substantial popular legitimacy that stems from she and her allies back in the 1990 elections winning more than 80 percent of the seats in the parliament. I don't think that those election results have been supplanted in any respect by the most recent elections that virtually everybody in their actual community, with the exception of a handful of allies of the Burmese regime, deem to be patently fraudulent.

So in terms of what she can do, I think she's in a position to press both publicly and privately for the military regime to engage in dialogue with her. And I think we have an obligation in the international community to stand in solidarity with her and put the kind of pressure on the regime that will hopefully help force them to decide to come to the negotiating table.

MARTIN: Well, Zoya Phan talked about that earlier. She started - and as I said, we were sorry that we had to let her go because her phone line was so difficult to understand. She was talking about the role she felt the international community could play. Would you tell us a little bit more about that?

Mr. GENSER: Sure. Sure. Well, I mean, you know, I think ultimately the regime feels quite confident right now because, frankly, they have substantial natural resources in the country - oil, gas, timber and gemstones - strong relationships with their neighbors and training relationships as well, billions of dollars in the bank, and billions of dollars a year they're making from the natural resources that they have. That has enabled them to purchase massive quantities of weapons and spend 20 percent of their GDP, you know, annually on the military and less than 2 percent on health and education combined.

So I think they feel firmly in charge. And the only thing we can do, I believe, to put pressure on them to actually feel the need to negotiate is to up the ante. And there are a number of ways to do it. One is the U.N. itself has recommended creating a commission of inquiry into war crimes and crimes against humanity in the country. I think the U.S. should move in that direction. We can look at tightening sanctions, particularly going after the junta's bankers in Singapore and Dubai, making it harder for them to do business internationally. And there are other steps like that, which in my view, could put the kind of pressure on the regime to make it feel that they might actually have to talk.

MARTIN: What leverage, though, does really exist, particularly on the U.S. side?

Mr. GENSER: Well, the U.S. has two points of leverage. One is that the existing strong sanctions in place by the United States are actually a reason why the Burmese regime wants to engage with us. And by that I mean that they feel, frankly, the stigma associated with the U.S. sanctions and they know that many countries in the world will follow the U.S. lead, and so by definition I think that they would like to find a way to have those sanctions removed over time.

The second point of leverage that we have, of course, is particularly with our allies in ASEAN and internationally, to be able to bring a number of countries together to simultaneously press the regime from many different directions.

MARTIN: And, finally, we only have, really, less than a minute left. Jared, I did want to ask for those in the United States who may be wondering, many people in the U.S. facing very difficult times right now, what this has to do with their own lives. What would you say? As much regard as Aung Sun Suu Kyi is held in, of course, she is.

Mr. GENSER: Sure.

MARTIN: But what does it have to do with their lives?

Mr. GENSER: Well, ultimately, you know, I think that as Americans we are blessed with freedoms that in some ways you can take for granted very easily. But I think it's important to note that the values on which our country was founded and may have had a tough time over the years, you know, operating consistently with them, but ultimately the values that we care about: freedom, democracy and human rights, are the very same values that Aung Sun Suu Kyi and her allies in Burma are fighting for.

And I think that we do have an obligation as Americans to stand in solidarity with those who do not have the freedom to speak out, to work to improve their own countries, let alone to vote for their own leaders. Aung Sun Suu Kyi has rather famously said: Please use your liberty to promote ours.

MARTIN: All right. Jared Genser is president of Freedom Now. That's a nonprofit group working to free political prisoners around the world. He has served as international council for Aung Sun Suu Kyi for the last four years. Previously we heard from Zoya Phan. She's the international coordinator for Burma Campaign U.K. I thank you so much for speaking with us, Jared.

Mr. GENSER: Great. Thanks so much.

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