Burmese opposition politician and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was recently released from a period of house arrest that began in 1989. Lonely Planet author Austin Bush had the chance to Skype with her on topics ranging from her country's name to what travellers can do to help the Burmese people.
LP: First of all, we have decided use both names for our Myanmar/Burma travel guide, but which do you prefer?
ASSK: I prefer 'Burma', because the name was changed [by the government] without any reference to the will of the people.
LP: Previously, you have been opposed to foreign tourists visiting Burma. However, you appear to have softened this stance over the last few years. How do you feel now about foreign tourists visiting the country? Can tourists do anything to benefit the move towards democracy?
ASSK: I think the NLD [National League for Democracy, the main opposition party] came to that decision about six to seven months ago. We are not in favour of group tourists, but we don’t mind if individuals come to Burma. Foreign tourists could benefit Burma if they go about [their travels] in the right way, by using facilities that help ordinary people and avoiding facilities that have close links to the government. If [tourists make the effort] to meet people working for democracy, then it might help.
LP: Why are there so many areas restricted to tourists in Burma? Do you think this will change in the near future?
ASSK: I’m not quite sure. Along the border areas it’s because hostilities might break out again. It also might have something to do with the fact that there aren’t enough facilities for tourists in remote areas.
LP: To many visitors, Yangon (Rangoon), the former Burmese capital, can appear as if it's caught in a time warp. In your experience as someone who grew up there, how has the city changed over the years? What's your favourite part of the city?
ASSK: I haven’t noticed any great changes since I’ve been under house arrest. The changes I’ve noticed are that there are many people using handphones [mobile phones], which I hadn’t seen seven years ago. But the streets and buildings appear the same.... It's been a long time since I've been able to explore Yangon. The Shwedagon is very important, and Sule Pagoda, but I spend much of my time at the NLD office.
LP: Your father, General Aung San, is viewed by many as the architect of Burmese independence. The museum dedicated to him, located in his former home, appears to be closed. Do you know why?
ASSK: I don’t think [the government] wants to encourage people to go there. They don’t want to remind people too much of my father. Officially they don’t allow portraits of my father to be hung in government offices over the last decade, probably because of the association with me and also because of how my father regarded the role of the army.
This interview with Aung San Suu Kyi will appear in the next edition of Lonely Planet's Myanmar (Burma) guidebook.