Aung San Suu Kyi: 'What We Want Is a Truly Democratic Country'

"People ask me to make speeches and they usually tell me what they want me to talk about," said Aung San Suu Kyi, during a wide-ranging talk at Asia Society in New York. "As a good guest, I like to oblige. But I usually am able to weave in what I'd like to say as well."

On Wednesday evening, the iconic Nobel laureate and Myanmar leader did exactly that. In an address delivered without the aid of notes, Aung San Suu Kyi spoke with optimism about the political and economic changes occurring in her country. But she noted that there was significant room for improvement.

"There's a long way to go before we can claim we have a right to be congratulated," she said.

Aung San Suu Kyi's visit to Asia Society — an institution with which she has maintained close ties over the years — caps off a successful visit to the United States, where last week President Barack Obama announced he would lift long-standing economic sanctions against Myanmar.

On Wednesday, she acknowledged this progress — but reiterated her support of establishing firmer civilian control over Myanmar, a country where the military continues to play a large role in political life.

“Military commanders should have no role to play in the civilian government of a democratic country," she said. "And what we want is a truly democratic country.”

Aung San Suu Kyi acknowledged that tremendous challenges remain. Relations between the Burmese majority and the country's many ethnic minorities are tense, and poverty and underdevelopment remain major concerns. Substandard roads susceptible to flooding have stymied sustained growth, and a substantial part of Myanmar's male population works as migrants abroad. These problems have prevented Myanmar from realizing its significant economic potential.

"At one time we were considered the nation most likely to succeed in Southeast Asia, but we were not able to achieve this success — for political, not economic reasons,” she said.

Following her remarks, Aung San Suu Kyi was interviewed on stage by Kevin Rudd, the president of the Asia Society Policy Institute and former Australian Prime Minister. In a lively discussion, the Myanmar leader asserted her desire for her country to enjoy a positive relationship with both the United States and China and defended her appointment of former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan to mediate ethnic conflict in Myanmar's Rakhine State.

“We’re not afraid of international scrutiny," she said. "Why should we be afraid if we’re doing what’s right?"

In an exchange about the U.S., Rudd said: "I do like, in this country, as I’m a foreigner, that the military refers to a 'commander in chief' — the president.”

"I like that very much!" said Aung San Suu Kyi, as the audience laughed.

For a figure who spent much of the previous decades forcibly removed from power — an exile in her own country — Aung San Suu Kyi reserved her most pointed language for the subject of human rights.

"Human rights isn't an entitlement," she said. "It's a human need."

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Profile picture for user Matt Schiavenza

Matt Schiavenza is the Assistant Director of Content at Asia Society. His work has appeared at The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, The New Republic, Fortune, and strategy + business among other publications.