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Retribution not on radar for Suu Kyi

Suu Kyi

– During all her years under house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi resisted getting a dog.

“I did not think it would be fair to the dog,” she told Washington Post editors and reporters Wednesday during a visit to the newspaper.

Now she is free, on her first visit to the United States in four decades, and she has a dog. Fairness is still very much on her mind as she tries to help engineer an improbable peaceful transition from dictatorship to democracy.

I have been writing about Suu Kyi for many years, but we had never met.

In person she is as advertised, only more so: serene but sharply intelligent, confident but with self-deprecating humor, spiritual but intensely pragmatic.

“The greatest human quality is kindness,” she said, sharing one of the lessons learned during nearly two decades in isolation. “It costs people nothing, and I don’t know why people are so miserly about being kind.”

This is her principle for living a good life but also, as it happens, her considered strategy for promoting political and economic change in Burma, which has been ruled by military dictators for half a century.

The generals and former generals have released some political prisoners, allowed Suu Kyi and some of her party colleagues to contest a minority of seats in the legislature and relaxed censorship. But they remain in control; the hardest test may not come until possible elections in 2015.

Suu Kyi has made herself a partner of the reformers in the regime, to the point that some longtime supporters are discomfited. They wonder why she does not speak out more strongly against abuses of ethnic minorities.

“It is not condemnation that is my forte,” Suu Kyi responded. “If condemnation is going to remove us further from reconciliation, I do not see the point in it.”

She agreed, in response to a question, that many Burmese suffered under the regime more grievously than she, but even for them she defended her call for “restorative justice,” not retribution. “I don’t think just because one person is hurt, you can remove that hurt by hurting another person,” she said.

No one can doubt the sincerity of her insistence on forgoing bitterness, all the more remarkable given how close thugs came to killing her in 2003 and how many of her comrades were tortured in the notorious Insein Prison.

Nor could anyone doubt that her insistent positivity fits with a political strategy focused very much on the long view.

She believes that the regime cracked open the political system partly because it had come to trust its own propaganda – to think that the regime was more popular than it proved to be.

When her National League for Democracy won 43 out of 44 seats contested in an April by-election, “it seemed to come as a shock to some of them,” she said.

Now that the generals understand that the NLD remains as popular as it was in 1990, when it won a landslide victory promptly annulled by the regime, why would they permit an election that could lead to a change of power?

“I hope they will not look at my popularity but my desire to cooperate with them,” she answers. “I want reconciliation.”

Fred Hiatt is the Washington Post’s editorial page editor.

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