Peter Popham: Aung San Suu Kyi meant to leave Britain for a few weeks – not 24 years

She and her family paid a terrible price about which she has never been willing to speak

Share
Related Topics

The look on her face as she arrived at the airport yesterday, a blinding smile on the point of bursting through her pursed lips, said it all: this was a homecoming. The word may not be diplomatic – for years she fought against the canard spread by Burma's junta that she was not really Burmese but a tool of foreigners, a creature of the hated British oppressor – but it contains plenty of truth.

When she left the family home in Park Town, Oxford, on 31 March 1988 and flew to Rangoon to nurse her gravely ill mother, it was a mercy dash, no more. She was going away for a few weeks or months, not 24 years.

Oxford had been her home twice over: in 1964 she had arrived from Delhi, where her mother, Daw Khin Kyi, was the Burmese ambassador, as a fresher at the all-female St Hugh's College, to take a degree in politics, philosophy and economics.

She threw herself into student life, teaching herself to punt, buying a Moulton bicycle and volunteering as a stage manager on plays. She was appalled by the adventurous attitude of her fellow students to sex. "I will never sleep with anyone except my husband," she declared, to the derision of the others, "until then I will just go to bed hugging my pillow". She was not a brilliant student: twice she tried to change her course, without success, and emerged with a third-class degree, which hampered attempts to return to academic life.

After marrying Tibet scholar Michael Aris in 1972, they settled in the city, eventually moving to a Victorian house with their sons Alexander and Kim. Once the children had got past their first years of school, she set about fulfilling her early ambition to be a writer: her best and most important work was a biography of her great father, Aung San.

Oxford was her life. Back in Burma, in 1988, students and others pressed her to join the democracy movement, but she resisted. She knew what it would mean: there would be no dipping a toe in then withdrawing it. Burmese politics had killed her father, assassinated before he could become the first prime minister of independent Burma. It was not for herself that the delegations wanted her – she had never made a political speech or taken a political stand – but because she was her father's daughter and would bring the lustre of his name to their movement.

Finally, she agreed. She and Michael were aware it would massively disrupt their domestic routine, but neither could have anticipated that it would blow the family apart. Michael wrote in a cheerful letter home after she had taken the plunge – the whole family was there to watch her make her first major speech, before a million people outside Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon – that he hoped the tottering junta would collapse by Christmas, then family life could resume.

Whether Suu was ever quite that sanguine is not clear. But in their worst nightmares they could not have foreseen the terrible years ahead: the way the regime would deliberately prevent her husband and children from visiting her, cynically exploiting her emotions to try to drive her out of Burma for ever.

Of course she never succumbed, and all four of them paid a price about which she has never been willing to speak. Oxford, where she travelled yesterday, remained intensely nostalgic. Buddhism warns sternly against attachment, and that includes attachment to place. But to the extent that this devout Buddhist can admit the concept, England for Aung San Suu Kyi is home, quite as much as the villa in Rangoon where she spent so many years confined.

What she must be feeling today, after a birthday reunion with her English in-laws, other relatives and friends in the city where she lived for more than 15 years, is impossible to imagine.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - OOP, Javascript, HTML, CSS, SQL

£39000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - OOP, Javascript, HTML,...

Austen Lloyd: Commercial / Residential Property - Surrey

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: SURREY MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Programme - Online Location Services Business

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: What do you want to do with your career? Do yo...

Recruitment Genius: Senior QC Scientist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company is a leading expert in immunoassa...

Day In a Page

Read Next
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012  

I saw the immigration lies a mile off - and now nobody can deny it

Nigel Farage
The Uber app allows passengers to hail a taxi with a smartphone  

Who wouldn’t like a sharing economy? Well, me, for one

Mary Dejevsky
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game