The return of Burma's accidental heroine

Aung San Suu Kyi's decision to go back to Rangoon to nurse her mother in 1988 propelled her into world politics. Peter Popham recalls meeting her
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I introduced myself and, exhausted as she was, she gave me one of her famous smiles. "Remember me to my friends at The Independent," she said. The date was 7 May 2002, the setting a long, narrow, shabby upstairs room in her party's headquarters near Shwedagon pagoda in Rangoon, the same down-at-heel office where, today, Aung San Suu Kyi will give the first speech of her new era of freedom.

Our conversation lasted no more than half an hour and, at her wish, we stuck firmly to the political: where her talks with the regime were headed, what her plans were, how she envisaged the situation developing. It was a rare moment of hope in Burma's bleak half-century of tyranny, when dialogue and reconciliation, the words she has been hurling at the regime like love bombs for years, looked as if they might actually mean something. Instead, little over a year later, the worst fears of her supporters were realised and she was back in detention – which lasted, in conditions far worse and more restrictive than ever before, until 6pm yesterday.

In the years that followed, I could not shake off the memory of that brief meeting. Other reporters and I had been hanging around the NLD office for days after her release from house arrest, watching the elderly volunteers running up party flags on ancient sewing machines, getting into long, tortuous conversations with party officers whose impossible Burmese names we could never remember. Then with no warning she was suddenly upon us – a cry came from the door, everyone stood up in two lines and she marched at speed between the lines, her back ramrod straight, the ghost of a smile on her lips, then disappeared up the stairs at the back of the office.

There has always been a fierce sort of poetry about Aung San Suu Kyi's political persona, a poetry that has all but drowned out the normal whys and wherefores of political discourse and engagement. It was there from the outset: this petite, delicate beauty, child of the general who had wrested his country from the hands of both the Japanese and the British before being assassinated; the flower who had emerged to lead the democratic movement like a student agitator's wet dream; the woman whose exquisite elegance – never without a perfectly matched jacket and sarong, and a sprig of jasmine in her hair – shone out from the dingy backcloth of her impoverished homeland. It was there on that frightening occasion in April 1989 when she walked alone down a street in the town of Danubyu, her supporters cowering back on the pavement, towards a line of soldiers poised to shoot her dead – until a more senior officer dashed out and countermanded the order at the last moment.

She was the accidental heroine of the Burmese insurrection of 1988, because there was no scheming or plotting about her presence in the right place at the right time; no sense of her striding in to claim her rightful heritage. In March 1988, she had just started on a part-time MA in modern Burmese literature at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She could only study part time, because her home was in Oxford and her duties as mother of two teenage boys and wife of the Tibetologist Michael Aris were well nigh all-consuming. The boys, especially Kim, the younger (who will have his first meeting with her for 10 years in the coming days), demanded close supervision and much nagging to do their schoolwork, while Michael was a dreamy and impractical husband who depended on Suu – Suu Burmese, as one of her close Oxford friends called her, to distinguish her from the other Sues she knew – for practically everything, from cooking the meals to buying new furniture.

Practically nothing would have dragged her away from the household tasks that she took immensely seriously – only an emotional call that was even more insistent, and in March 1988 that call came. Late one night, a friend rang from Rangoon to tell her that her mother, Daw Khin Kyi, had suffered a stroke and was in a Rangoon hospital. Suu, who visited Burma with the boys every summer, knew all about modern Burmese hospitals: unless you had family living close by you did not eat. The next day she was on her way. She has never seen England since.

Her arrival coincided with the first flarings of the student unrest that within five months had built into a blazing insurrection, the closest thing to a revolution that the country has experienced since independence. It was spontaneous, anarchic, leaderless and increasingly violent, but gradually during those months Suu let herself be persuaded that she had a role to play in it. It was the single most crucial decision she has ever taken.

She had known from earliest childhood that there was something very special about her family – something both specially sad and specially important. Her father, Aung San, had been gunned down when she was only two, her memories of him only hazy. The gaping hole in her family was the gaping hole in the fabric of the nation, the reason, or one of them, that Burma got off to such a lame and chaotic start to independence, with the sweet but hazy U Nu as prime minister when Aung San, the tough, genial, pragmatic general, would have had much clearer ideas about how to hold the nation together.

Then in 1958, when she was 13, her family was effectively sent into exile. At the request of the gormless U Nu, the army chief Ne Win had temporarily taken over control of the government to restore order. With hindsight, it is clear that Ne Win was paving the way for seizing absolute power, which he finally did in 1962. One of his acts in 1958 was to boot potential troublemakers upstairs into honourable diplomatic positions far away. Daw Khin Kyi, widow of his former comrade Aung San, was dispatched as Burma's first female ambassador to Delhi, where she could cause him no difficulties.

It was a gilded exile to be sure, and Suu benefited hugely from her exposure to the far wider intellectual world of India, but exile is what it was. To compensate, Daw Khin Kyi wasted no opportunity to remind her daughter about her father and his achievements. Gradually, through her Indian adolescence and into her Oxford years ,we see forming the lineaments of who she is today. At her mother's insistence, she was coached in all the old-fashioned disciplines of the debutante: piano, horsemanship, dressmaking, cooking. She became an addict of the mysteries of Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie. Her refined beauty slowly came into its own, and rejected suitors strewed her path, yet even those she favoured had to reckon with the fact that she was a very old-fashioned girl: she rejected out of hand the idea of drinking alcohol or having sex before marriage. She knew who she was: the daughter of an amazing man.

While that knowledge was formed deep within her character, it is remarkable, nonetheless, given her story over the past 22 years, how little sign she gave of seeing a future for herself in politics. In a famous series of letters to Michael Aris before they married, she asked him to understand that, at some point, her country might have need of her, and, if so, that would take precedence over marriage. But until 1988, the idea of what she might do for Burma was never more than vague. She spoke of wanting to set up a chain of public libraries, of creating a scholarship scheme for young Burmese to study abroad – an idea realised in the educational charity Prospect Burma, which she supports. At Oxford she had taken the classic politician's degree, politics, philosophy and economics, but there were no speeches at the union, no dry-runs for a political career, no straining for public office. Her powerful sense of duty was diverted into her family.

It was in 1986, when she took up a one-year fellowship at the University of Kyoto to study documents about her father in Japanese archives, that her ambitions began to stir. There, she was lionised by Burmese students who brought home to her the increasingly desperate plight of her country. They regarded her with a mixture of respect and expectation which got her thinking. What on earth was she going to do with her family name? And when?

Two years later, in Rangoon, the same forces were at work on her again, and far more insistently. As the bodies of slaughtered students piled up in the streets, streams of people filed through her home, debating what was to be done and urging her to play a part. Finally, on 26 August 1988, she took the plunge. At Shwedagon Pagoda she stepped out on to a podium before a crowd perhaps a million strong, without notes, and made the first real speech of her life. She was a natural.

Words of wisdom

'People have been saying I know nothing of Burmese politics. The trouble is, I know too much'

1988, at a Rangoon rally

'It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it, and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it'

Accepting the 1990 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought

'I would like to set strongly the precedent that you bring about political change through political settlement and not through violence'

Interview, 1997

'No matter the regime's physical power, in the end they can't stop the people. We shall have our time'

Interview with John Pilger, 1997

'I'm sorry to have kept you waiting such a long time. Please give my regards to all our old friends at The Independent'

To 'Independent on Sunday' journalist Peter Popham on her previous release in 2002