Suu Kyi's Europe Trip Revives Lifetime of Memories

By Jocelyn Gecker 30 June 2012

BANGKOK — Paris brought back memories of onion soup. Oxford, of carefree student days and sharing a passion for literature with her two young sons. In London, Aung San Suu Kyi recalled her father, whose historic visit in 1947 came shortly before he was assassinated — when she was only 2.

The Burmese opposition leader’s first trip to Europe in 24 years triggered an outpouring of nostalgia that put a softer, more personable face on the woman known for her steely defiance and stoicism. Throughout her long and lonely battle for democracy, the 67-year-old Suu Kyi remained guarded about her personal life and shunned public discussion of the family she had left behind in England.

She returns to Burma on Saturday with perhaps heavier suitcases, filled with honorary degrees and awards she could not collect during 15 years of house arrest. She leaves behind a sprinkling of personal stories and recollections from her triumphant two-week tour. Telling them seemed to provide a catharsis after years of single-minded struggle against the former military junta in the country she still calls Burma.

“Today, many strands of my life have come together,” Suu Kyi said during an emotional visit to Oxford University, where she studied philosophy, politics and economics and met her husband, British scholar Michael Aris. They later moved to an Oxford suburb to raise their sons, Alexander and Kim.

In 1988 she took a trip to Burma to nurse her dying mother and found herself, as the daughter of a legendary independence leader, thrust into the forefront of pro-democracy protests that would give her a new calling in life. Worried that the military government would bar her return, she didn’t leave the country again until earlier this year — even when her husband in England died of cancer in 1999.

Back amid Oxford’s Gothic spires, Suu Kyi recalled taking boat rides with friends along the River Cherwell and daydreaming in the library instead of studying. The most important thing she learned, she said, was a respect for all of civilization.

“These were very precious memories, because I had lived a happy life,” she said in her impeccable British-accented English. “During the most difficult years, I was upheld by memories of Oxford.”

In a separate speech, Suu Kyi spoke of sitting in the family’s Oxford home with her son Alexander as they listened to a radio program about great books. She joked that one day she might win the Nobel Prize for literature, and they laughed.

Years later, during her first term of house arrest, her husband visited Burma and told her she had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, she said.

“A pleasant prospect, but quite improbable!” was her thought at the time, she told a rapt audience at Oslo City Hall in a long-overdue acceptance speech for her 1991 award.

“Often during my days of house arrest it felt as though I were no longer a part of the real world,” Suu Kyi told the audience of more than 600 including Norway’s king and queen.

News that she had won came over the radio that was her lifeline to the world. During the long years of isolation, the music of Mozart helped her to cope, she said, along with great books that made her feel she “was not really cut off from the rest of humankind.”

Suu Kyi wrote her eight main European speeches in roughly a week before her trip, said Ohn Kyaing, a spokesman for her party.

The speeches incorporated lighthearted jokes and wove pieces of her family history into the larger history of her country, showcasing the agile political mind of a woman who believes it is her destiny to deliver democracy to Burma.

Standing ovations greeted Suu Kyi everywhere she spoke. In Switzerland, Norway, Ireland, England and France, she received honors normally reserved for heads of state. There were dinners with presidents and prime ministers and private meetings with Prince Charles and the Dalai Lama. Bono of rock band U2 pronounced himself “star-struck” in her presence.

Suu Kyi took it all in stride until French film star Alain Delon greeted her in Paris with a kiss on the hand that almost made her giggle.

In Paris, her last stop, Suu Kyi was asked what France represents to her and replied: “Everything from Victor Hugo to onion soup.” She read French literature during her isolation to keep up her French, she told reporters, and said that France’s revolutionary spirit was an inspiration for her during her political struggle.

In London, Suu Kyi visited 10 Downing Street, completing a full-circle in her family history.

In 1947, her father Gen. Aung San traveled to England to discuss Burma’s independence from colonial rule. In a famous photograph, he stands in an oversized British-issue military raincoat beside Prime Minister Clement Atlee at 10 Downing Street. Shortly after returning home, he was assassinated by rivals.

“A couple hours ago, I was photographed in the same place where my father was photographed,” Suu Kyi said at the opening of a historic speech to the British Parliament. In her photo, she stood beside Prime Minister David Cameron. “It was my first visit and yet it was a familiar scene.”

Following in her father’s footsteps has been a guiding force of Suu Kyi’s life, said British historian Peter Carey, a family friend.

“Her father left behind an unfinished legacy,” he said. “She didn’t quite know how fate would deal the tarot cards to her. But I think she was someone who very much knew that if destiny called she would respond.”

Associated Press writers Jill Lawless in London, Shawn Pogatchnik in Dublin, Elaine Ganley in Paris and Aye Aye Win in Yangon, Burma, contributed to this report.