Suu Kyi to Make Bittersweet Return to Oxford

By Jill Lawless 18 June 2012

LONDON—Before Aung San Suu Kyi was a prisoner of conscience and a political icon, she inhabited a world of children’s birthday parties, university libraries and bicycle-filled English suburbs.

The leader of Burma’s democracy movement spent years in the university city of Oxford with her English academic husband and their two sons. She left one day in 1988 to care for her sick mother, thinking she would be gone for weeks. Almost a quarter of a century later, she is about to return for the first time.

On Monday, Suu Kyi begins a week-long trip to Britain as part of a European tour. Her itinerary includes talks with Prime Minister David Cameron, an address to Parliament and a meeting with Prince Charles.

But the most bittersweet moment will likely be her homecoming to Oxford, where on Wednesday the 66-year-old will finally accept the honorary doctorate she was awarded in 1993, while she was under house arrest in Rangoon.

Oxford looks much the same as when she left, a traffic-clogged jumble of spires and bridges and Gothic college buildings. But her children are grown and her beloved husband, Michael Aris, has pass away.

“I’m sure within herself it’ll be an extremely emotional moment,” said Peter Popham, author of “The Lady and the Peacock,” a biography of Suu Kyi. “When she left in March 1988 she expected to be away for a while, possibly a few months, but certainly not 24 years.”

Suu Kyi arrived in Oxford in 1964 from a background marked by both privilege and tragedy.

She had been educated at a convent school in New Delhi, where her mother was ambassador for the country then known as Burma. Her father, Gen Aung San, a political leader who negotiated Burma’s independence from Britain, had been assassinated by political rivals in 1947, when she was just two.

She studied politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford University’s then-women-only St. Hugh’s College, a handsome collection of red brick Edwardian buildings set in extensive gardens.

Student friend Ann Pasternak Slater recalled a striking figure whose “firm moral convictions and inherited social grace contrasted sharply with the tatty dress and careless manners, vague liberalism and uncertain sexual morality” of her English counterparts.

Suu Kyi was not a party animal—she tasted alcohol just once, to see what it was like—but did embrace other Oxford traditions.

In the essay collection “Freedom From Fear,” Pasternak Slater described her learning to operate a punt—Oxford’s characteristic flat-bottomed boats—and to ride a bicycle, swapping her traditional Burmese long skirt, the lungi, for a pair of white jeans.

While at Oxford, Suu Kyi met Aris, a Himalayan scholar who later served as tutor to the children of the king of Bhutan. They married in 1972—on condition that if her country ever needed her, she would go.

Neither imagined how high the price would be.

“She thought she might go to Burma one day to set up a mobile library once the kids were grown and Michael was retired,” said Rebecca Frayn, screenwriter of “The Lady,” a recent feature film about Suu Kyi. “They had a little dream that he would grow orchids.”

The couple lived in Bhutan and London before settling in Oxford when Aris got an academic post. Suu Kyi looked after sons Alexander and Kim and pursued doctoral studies.

Frayn said the future Nobel peace laureate embraced her role as academic wife and “utterly devoted mother.”

“She was famed for her exquisitely organized birthday parties,” Frayn said. “The common thing is that she did whatever she did to the Nth degree.”

In March 1988, Suu Kyi returned to Burma to nurse her dying mother, and found herself on the front line of mass pro-democracy protests that erupted soon after. The hospital where her mother was being treated was inundated with injured demonstrators.

As the daughter of a national hero, Suu Kyi was an instant emblem of the movement. She embraced her destiny and helped form the National League for Democracy—with the support of her far-off husband.

“From the outset, they knew it was a tough decision to go into politics,” Popham said. “But I don’t think any of them had an idea of how hard it was going to be. Michael thought the regime would collapse within months and they would be reunited by Christmas 1988.”

In fact, Aris saw his wife only a handful of times after she left Oxford.

The NLD won elections in 1990, but was kept from power by the military junta. Suu Kyi spent much of the next 20 years under house arrest, finally being released in November 2010. In April, she won a seat in the country’s national assembly, and is campaigning for further reform.

The couple’s predicament took a cruel twist in 1997, when Aris was diagnosed with what turned out to be terminal prostate cancer. The junta would have allowed Suu Kyi to leave Burma to visit him, but she feared she would not be allowed to return. He applied 30 times for visas to visit her; all were rejected.

“He was adamant she shouldn’t come back,” Frayn said. “He was convinced [his visa] would be granted and he would die in her arms.”

Aris died in Oxford on his 53rd birthday in 1999. He had not seen his wife in more than three years.

Frayn said the years of separation had left a “complex emotional legacy” for Suu Kyi’s sons, now in their 30s.

Kim Aris lives in Oxford and has visited his mother several times since her release from house arrest. Elder brother Alexander—who at age 18 delivered the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize address on behalf of his mother—lives in a Buddhist community in Portland, Oregon. Neither has given interviews to the media.

Suu Kyi, too, rarely speaks of her emotions—a reflection, Frayn said, both of her Buddhist faith and of her political convictions.

“She is surrounded in the National League for Democracy by people who spent many years in prison, and in some senses her context is that she got off lightly compared to a lot of her close political colleagues,” Frayn said. “She has said that this is in a sense her cross to bear, the long-term separation from her sons.

“A journalist once said to her that her story was like a Greek tragedy. She absolutely rebuked him and said: I made a choice.”