WASHINGTON — Radio Free Asia has launched a question and answer show with Aung San Suu Kyi, giving the people of military-ruled Myanmar the rarest of opportunities to communicate directly with the democracy icon.
The US-funded broadcaster is airing weekly Burmese-language segments on Friday evenings with the 65-year-old opposition leader, who has been under house arrest for 15 of the last 21 years and was last released in November.
Questions for Suu Kyi come in via email or phone and some have already arrived from people within Myanmar, a Radio Free Asia spokesman told AFP, adding that 20 percent of adults there listen to the program.
Myanmar’s ruling junta clamps down hard on any dissent but is unable technically to block the broadcasts, which the population of the majority Buddhist southeast Asian nation of 50 million can pick up on shortwave radio.
“In Burma, there is no opinion or perspective expressed on official media apart from that of the ruling regime,” Nyein Shwe, service director of RFA Burmese, said, using Myanmar’s colonial name.
“Many Burmese people never in their lifetimes imagined they would be able to hear Aung San Suu Kyi discuss her views nor ask her their questions on the radio. For them, it?s a first.”
A pilot episode, broadcast on November 30, featured six questions from members of the diaspora living outside the country: a doctor, a cartoonist, a student leader, a monk, an activist and an ethnic leader.
Radio Free Asia provided a special audio version of the first “Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the People” show with Suu Kyi answering the questions in English. This can be found on the group’s website at www.rfa.org/english.
“We have constantly reviewed our position with regard to sanctions and once again we are going to see if there is anything we can do to improve the situation,” she replied to one question, treading carefully.
Suu Kyi was freed from detention on November 13, days after a rare election which has been widely panned by international observers including US President Barack Obama, who said Myanmar’s “bankrupt regime” had stolen the vote.
Obama’s administration launched dialogue with Myanmar’s military rulers last year after concluding that Western attempts to isolate the regime had produced little success.
Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has welcomed this engagement but warned that greater human rights and economic progress are still needed.
She told CNN in an interview last month that Washington must be “keeping your eyes open and alert and seeing what is really going on, and where engagement is leading to and what changes really need to be brought about.”
Senior US official Joseph Y. Yun arrives in Myanmar on Tuesday for the first high-level talks between the two countries since Myanmar’s election and Suu Kyi’s release. He will also meet Suu Kyi.
Yun will urge the authorities to “improve their human rights records, release all political prisoners immediately and unconditionally and begin genuine dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi and pro-democracy and ethnic leaders to work towards national reconciliation,” a spokesperson said.
The junta’s political proxy claimed an overwhelming victory in the November 7 elections — Myanmar’s first in two decades — amid opposition complaints of cheating and voter intimidation.
Critics say the vote was a charade aimed at preserving the rule of the military junta. It was widely criticized internationally as a sham.
According to state media, junta leader Senior General Than Shwe hailed the “free and fair elections” and said just two of seven steps needed to be completed on his self-styled “roadmap to democracy.”
Replying to another question in the inaugural RFA show, Suu Kyi said: “There are many things that are not satisfactory about the present roadmap for democracy.
“We think that this should be discussed very, very thoroughly between all those who wish to really promote the process for democracy in Burma.”
Myanmar has been ruled by the military since 1962 and has refused to recognize the results of elections in 1990 that Suu Kyi’s party won by a landslide.