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

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

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

Ashdown Group: Junior Project Manager (website, web application) - Agile

£215 per day: Ashdown Group: Junior Project Manager (website, web application ...

Guru Careers: Business Development Manager / Sales

£30 - 40k (£65k Y1 OTE Uncapped): Guru Careers: We are seeking a Business Deve...

Guru Careers: Graduate Media Assistant

Competitive (DOE): Guru Careers: We are looking for an ambitious and adaptable...

Guru Careers: Solutions Consultant

£30 - 40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Solutions Consultan...

Day In a Page

Read Next
IDF soldiers and vehicles in an image provided by campaign group Breaking the Silence  

'Any person you see – shoot to kill': The IDF doctrine which causes the death of innocent Palestinians

Ron Zaidel

If I were Prime Minister: I'd give tax cuts to the rich, keep Trident, and get my football team wrong

Frankie Boyle
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before