BANGKOK—Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is bullish on democratic reform but not so sure about Facebook.
The Nobel Peace Prize winner—who was held under house arrest as a political prisoner for much of the past 22 years without even a telephone—was asked on Friday at the World Economic Forum (WEF) on East Asia when she would join the 900-million member social network.
The 66-year-old said it was not an issue with adjusting to new technology, but a matter of finding the time. She said she will join when her schedule opens up.
“Mind you, you never know what will happen with the technological revolution,” she said at a news conference. “Facebook may be old hat tomorrow. In that case, I won’t go on Facebook.”
Under Burma’s previous military junta, her countrymen with Internet connections were blocked by a government firewall from accessing many sites. The reformist but still military-backed government elected last year has since eased most of those restrictions.
Suu Kyi herself had a broadband internet connection installed at her house shortly after her release.
Suu Kyi also said on Friday that she is a big fan of mobile phones, and opposes Burma’s tight licensing rules on them.
“This means that we cannot promote the distribution of cellphones as much as we would wish to, and I think we would all agree that cellphones are very important in both the political and economic opening-up of any country,” she said.
After 24 years of isolation in Burma, Suu Kyi received a standing ovation as she took the podium at the WEF, where she delighted the audience with a story about being invited into the cockpit as she landed in Bangkok—her first international flight in decades. At first she marveled at the high-tech control panel but then was “completely fascinated by the lights” of modern Bangkok sprawled out below her.
The forum’s founder, Klaus Schwab, introduced her as “one of the most extraordinary personalities this century.”
The Suu Kyi spent 15 out of 22 years locked under house arrest by the former military regime. She was granted freedom after Burma held elections in 2010 and was elected to Parliament in April, capping a stunning personal story.
Since elections last year, Burmese President Thein Sein has surprised much of the world by engineering sweeping reforms, but Suu Kyi noted that the country is still in the very early phases of building a democracy.
“These days I am coming across what I call reckless optimism,” she said, drawing applause from the room packed with several hundred people and a wall of TV cameras. “A little bit of healthy skepticism I think is in order.”
Burma’s reforms have prompted the US and Europe to ease economic sanctions they imposed during the military’s regime, but some human rights groups have warned that while those moves are good for the country’s development they will weaken incentives to continue democratic reforms.
Anticipating huge aid and investment to develop Burma’s stunted infrastructure, she said she hoped foreign firms would invest cautiously and transparently, so the influx of money can benefit the impoverished masses.
“We do not want more investment to mean more possibilities for corruption,” she said. “Our country must benefit.”
Suu Kyi’s initial speech at the forum lasted about 10 minutes and was followed by a question-answer session with Schwab. She focused her talk on how the world could help “that little piece of the world that some of us call Burma and some of us call Myanmar.”
She listed the country’s most essential needs as secondary education to foster political reforms and jobs to end high youth unemployment that she called “a time bomb.” She said Myanmar still lacks rule of law and an independent judiciary.
“We need basic education in Burma,” she said, “the kind of education that will enable our people to earn a decent living for themselves.”
Burma’s sputtering economy, in ruins after half a century of military rule and years of harsh Western sanctions, has led to huge unemployment and has forced millions of people to seek jobs abroad.
“I keep telling our people, it’s true that we are behind everyone else but it means we can learn from the mistakes of everyone else,” she said.
Dressed in blue silk with a strand of white flowers in her hair, Suu Kyi spoke publicly for the first time since arriving Tuesday about her first impressions of the outside world after 24 years of isolation.
The Oxford graduate said she was amazed before even stepping off the plane, where the captain of her Thai Airways flight was “so very kind as to invite me to sit in the cockpit.”
Bangkok is a stark contrast to sleepy Yangon where rolling blackouts due to electricity shortages have spurred protests for more than a week. Thirty years ago the two cities were not so far apart, she said, but: “Now the difference is considerable.”
She drew laughter from the audience by adding: “What went through my mind was, ‘We need an energy policy!’”