Suu Kyi to make bittersweet return to Oxford
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 Myanmar’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 weeklong 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 Yangon.
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, is dead.
”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 2. 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, then settled 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 Myanmar 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.