The Day An Australian Reporter Got An Exclusive Interview With The Most Famous Political Prisoner Since Nelson Mandela

Zoe Daniel in the typhoon-ravaged city of Tacloban last year. Photo David Leland

Reporter Zoe Daniel was the ABC’s Southeast Asia correspondent for five years, and only the second second mother to be appointed as an ABC foreign correspondent, based in Bangkok with her husband, Rowan, and two small children.

In this extract from her new book, Storyteller, she recounts scoring a rare interview with Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi shortly after her release from house arrest in November 2010.

Aung San Suu Kyi is due to be released soon after the election.

For almost 15 of the 20-odd years since her party’s democratic victory, she’s been locked in her house in Yangon on the shores of Inya Lake, cut off from the outside world. Her campaign of peaceful resistance has made her a global icon.

It has also cost her dearly. Her sons, Kim and Alexander, spent years separated from her, living with their father in London who then died of cancer in her absence.

In 1991, they received a Nobel Peace Prize on her behalf. As a mother I believe she’s made an incredible personal sacrifice for her cause. My biggest fear, reporting from countries like Burma, is getting arrested and being unable to see my children grow up. The very thought is enough to give me nightmares.

There’s been a lot of debate about whether the junta will actually release her on the due date. Her period of house arrest has been arbitrarily extended a number of times, notably by 18 months when an American man swam up to her house in 2009. We’re all half-expecting another last-minute excuse to keep her out of the public eye. At the same time, though, the election is over. How much damage can she possibly do when the next poll (if it happens) is five years away?

We’re back in Bangkok and it’s late on a Friday afternoon when we get word of activity at her home. Jum hits the phone hard and manages to confirm that Aung San Suu Kyi will soon be freed. We go live on radio and TV with the news.

The next day the world holds its breath until the diminutive woman with flowers in her hair appears at her front gate in front of a media circus and thousands of Burmese. Information is still scant about whether conditions have been imposed on her release, but for the moment her smiling face is enough to make the crowd of long-suffering Burmese weep and laugh and cheer. Still in Bangkok, I listen to a crackly live feed of her speech on Radio Free Asia. It’s in Burmese, but that doesn’t matter – the emotion is easy to comprehend.

David has worked for years in Southeast Asia, and he’s seen her released and rearrested before. ‘Ask someone to hand her a phone,’ he says. ‘She’ll talk to Australia.’

As we deliver round-the-clock live crosses, TV and radio stories to the ABC’s various outlets, Jum has one job: to get Aung San Suu Kyi on the phone. She’s yet to do any interviews. Jum spends a whole day calling our various contacts again and again while Paul, David and I concentrate on covering the story.

ABC foreign correspondent Zoe Daniel meets with Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Photo Wayne McAllister

It’s Sunday evening around six o’clock when Jum pops her head into my office. ‘Got her! She’ll be on the phone in five minutes.’

I dash into the radio booth and set up a recording session. We open an output so that David can make a second recording, just in case. This is one interview we don’t want to make any mistakes with.

I try to centre myself. It’s hard not to be completely starstruck, and I’ve been told that Aung San Suu Kyi can be prickly and has a low tolerance for personal questions. We’ve also been warned that she will give us five minutes only.

When Jum gets our contact on the phone, we’re all sick with nerves that the line will drop out. I patch him through and ask, ‘Can you hear me?’

‘Yes. Are you ready?’

I swallow and indicate that I am indeed.

There’s some fumbling and talking in the background. ‘It’s ABC Australia,’ I hear him say. A second later, ‘Hello?’ It’s the unmistakable Oxford English accent of the woman everyone wants to talk to.

‘Hello Daw Suu,’ I say, using the Burmese honorific that denotes respect to older women. ‘Thank you for talking to us. My name is Zoe.’

‘I’m having trouble hearing you,’ she says. She will later say that she doesn’t much enjoy talking on mobile phones, which of course didn’t exist when she was placed under house arrest. There was no internet either.
I fiddle with a few dials to increase the volume, and we’re underway.

‘Can you tell me, to start with, what is your key message to the Burmese people both inside and outside Burma?’
‘That we all have to work together and that unity is strength,’ she says.
‘We’ve got to find new ways and we have got to make our movement wider. We have broadened our movement and we’ve got to find new people and new ways in support of our dream.’

‘How are you going to do that up against the difficult environment that is Burma?’
‘Well, difficulties are a challenge and challenges are there to be overcome.’

‘Will you engage with the military junta?’
‘We would like to engage with the military junta. We would like to engage with everybody who we think would help the democratic process.’

‘What would you say to General Than Shwe if you could speak with him today?’
‘Well, the first thing is that I would like to have the opportunity to say something to him; that is to say that it would be good if we could talk to each other.’

‘Little has changed politically in Burma since your detention. How do you feel about that – coming out of such a long period of detention to still see your people so depleted?’
‘Of course I feel very sad about that. I noticed today how poor a lot of our people are and I was very touched by the fact that in spite of their obvious difficulties, the hardships that they have to face, they were so warm in their welcome and so enthusiastic.’

‘Do you think that the election has made things better or worse?’
‘At the moment I don’t see any change at all. I am not sure whether things are better or things are worse. I think we have got to wait for a little bit to find out.’

‘And how much pressure do you feel personally because they view you so much as the hero of their country who can fix their problems?’
‘Do you mean that do I feel I am being pressured to do something?’

‘Yes, do you feel pressured?’
‘I don’t think that I feel that because, after all, I chose to do what I am doing and nobody pressured me into working for the movement for democracy.’

‘Do you fear that you may be arrested again?’
‘I don’t know whether I shall be arrested again or not. This is not in my department. I am not the one who goes around arresting people so I am not in a position to say whether this one or that one including myself might be arrested, but I hope not because there is so much that I want to do.’

‘Will that stop you from doing anything?’
‘No, of course not. I have to do what I feel that my duty dictates.’

‘Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, I was on the border during the week with refugees who had fled fighting between ethnic groups and the Burmese military. How high do you think the risk is of increased fighting and potential civil war?’
‘I have also heard news about the fighting on the border. Of course, I haven’t been there as you have so I would not view the situation as well as you do, but I am very saddened by this – the problems in this country should be resolved through dialogue, not through force of arms.’

‘International governments, including Australia, have offered support to you. What do you need from them?’
‘I would like to talk to them. I would like to see how they think they can support us. I think there has to be an exchange. I have just come out of house arrest after six years and I don’t just want to go around and tell people you do this and you do that, we want this and we want that. I would like to have a genuine exchange to find out what we can do to help each other.’

‘Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, lovely to talk to you and thank you for your time.’
‘Thank you very much and my very warmest thanks to the people of Australia for all that they have done for us.’

I exit the radio booth and give Jum a big hug.

We’re one of only a few networks to talk directly to ‘the Lady of Burma’ so soon after her release. Our interview airs on ABC radio’s AM program the next morning. As Australians eat their Weet-Bix, walk their dogs and drive to work, they hear Aung San Suu Kyi thank them for their support.

By mid November my family barely remembers who I am. I’ve been either on the road or at the office from 6am for weeks on end when I get a call from Sydney: the foreign editor will be relieving me for a few days.

Rowan and I fly off with the kids to Krabi, a beach town in Thailand’s south. We jump on a longboat to Railei Beach, where awe-inspiring cliffs frame white sand fringed with trees. The kids are in bright-yellow life jackets, bouncing as we hit the waves and grinning from ear to ear.

The groceries are piled up with our suitcases in the front. By the time we reach the shore, the sky has opened and we’re caught in a torrential downpour. We drag all our stuff, dripping wet, to the little Thai timber house that will be our home for a few days. There’s no air-conditioning, no hot water, no TV, no phone, just soft beds draped with white mosquito nets and wooden shutters on the windows to keep the monkeys out.

The kids and I dance on the deck in the warm rain. The year is drawing to a close and I finally feel like I can breathe. When the sun shines we play in the sea and make sandcastles, and at night I dream of redshirts and deadlines and soaring mountains and rushing rivers and birthday cakes – and Burma.

Storyteller (ABC Books, $29,99), published this month, is Zoe Daniel’s memoir of her time covering everything from rape and murder of women in India to the Khmer Rouge war crimes trials in Cambodia and last year, the typhoon-devastated villages of the Philippines. It also grapples with the difficulty of slipping back into her ‘regular’ life after witnessing traumatic events.

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