Married to a cruel destiny

Michael Aris died without seeing his wife, a virtual prisoner in Burma. He always knew it might come to this.
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From the outset Michael Aris knew that he was not simply marrying a woman, but committing himself to a cause. So when the telephone call finally came he was unsurprised.

"It was a quiet evening in Oxford, like many others, the last day of March 1988," he wrote in Freedom From Fear, a collection of essays by and about his wife. "Our sons were in bed and we were reading when the telephone rang. Suu picked up the phone to learn that her mother had suffered a severe stroke. She put the phone down and at once started to pack. I had a premonition that our lives would change for ever."

For this was not just a case of Mrs Aris, the wife of a shy and modest Oxford don, returning to her native Rangoon to nurse her mother. It was Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the Burmese national hero who had won independence for his country, arriving back in her native land at a time of political turmoil. Within two years she had been elected president of the country in an overwhelming popular vote - and then subjected to house arrest by the Burmese military junta which refused to accept the result of the election.

Throughout the decade which followed, Suu Kyi has become what her husband once described as "an icon of popular hope and longing" and a symbol that the human spirit could not be quenched and that the craving for democracy would not be extinguished.

In those 11 years Michael Aris, who died at the weekend after prostate cancer spread to his spine and lungs, saw his wife only five times. Even until the end the Burmese junta refused to grant the dying man a visa to visit his wife for a final time. And yet their marriage, too, became a remarkable symbol of fidelity, love and duty.

"The [junta's] plan was to break Suu's spirit by separating her from her family and from hope," said Aris at the time of her house arrest. He was as determined as she was that the Burmese generals would not succeed in their plan.

He had had only an inkling of what was to come when they met as students at Oxford in 1965. "From her early childhood," he wrote, "Suu had been deeply preoccupied with the question of what she might do to help her people. She never forgot for a minute that she was the daughter of Burma's national hero ... And yet prior to 1988 it had never been her intention to strive for anything quite so momentous ...

"Recently I read again the 187 letters she sent me in the eight months before we were married on 1 January 1972. Again and again she expressed her worry that her family and people might misinterpret our marriage and see it as a lessening of her devotion to them. She constantly reminded me that one day, should she have to return to Burma, that she counted on my support at that time, not as her due, but as a favour..."

It was not a favour she was to call on for some time. The first 16 years of their married life was spent immersed in things academic - and in the upbringing of the couple's two children. Her husband was a specialist in Tibetan studies and they lived at first in the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan and then in Oxford, where he became a senior research fellow at St Anthony's College. Suu Kyi studied and worked in the oriental department at the Bodleian Library.

But her return to Rangoon to nurse her dying mother coincided with the rise of a mass democracy movement. Four years earlier, in an essay on her father, Suu Kyi wrote: "For the people of Burma, Aung San was the man who had come in their hour of need to restore their national pride and honour."

They were words which by the end of the decade someone else might have written about her.

She soon emerged as the natural leader of the country's movement for democracy in the face of a brutal crack-down by the military in which thousands were killed. After winning the election she was placed under house arrest. It lasted for six years, and even since it was lifted in 1995 her movements have remained severely restricted. Her husband and sons stayed in Oxford. "To begin with we were able to write to each other," she told one interviewer. "Once I was under house arrest it was impossible."

"There were such long times when we were out of touch," she told another. "Two years and four months was the longest." There were: "no letters or anything, either way, during that time".

Then in 1991 Aung San Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize. She was not allowed out of Burma to collect it. Her husband went instead. Today the scroll and the gold medal appended to it stand on the shelf of his Oxford study. The Burmese authorities turned a blind eye to that. He was allowed to visit her afterwards. But Christmas 1995 was to be final time the couple would see each other.

"The days I spent alone with her that last time, completely isolated from the rest of the world, are among my happiest memories of our eventful years of marriage," he later said. "It was wonderfully peaceful. I did not suspect this would be the last time we would be together."

But when he came home he smuggled out of Burma a political speech by his wife. The military junta was unforgiving. Its personal vendetta was stepped up. The army regularly vilified her for being the wife of a foreigner from the former colonial power. Her sons, now aged 20 and 24, were stripped of Burmese citizenship. Aris was consistently refused visas to travel to see her. And having dialled the her house in Rangoon over and over, was cut off when he finally got through.

Suu Kyi remained resolute. "I miss my children and I miss my husband with every breath I take, but my belief that I am doing the right thing is unshakeable," the stoic Buddhist said.

According to close friends, even in private Aris never once complained that he wished she would throw it all in and come home. Instead, without ever saying a word publicly, he campaigned tirelessly for Burmese democracy behind the scenes. Not everyone was so generous. Some friends of Aris have privately expressed misgivings about his wife's decision to turn down the junta's offer that she could visit her dying husband, provided she did not engage in political activity while she was abroad.

She declined, believing they would not keep their word and allow her back into Burma. Last Sunday, when she and Michael both knew that death could not be far away, she was allowed to leave her home and go to the British embassy in Rangoon for what turned out to be their final telephone call.

Yesterday the Burmese government offered its "sincere condolences" and said his widow can travel to attend his funeral with the promise that she will be allowed back.

Almost certainly she will not believe them. In death they will remain apart, as they did in life.