Obituary: Michael Aris

Per Kvaerne
Sunday 28 March 1999 23:02 BST

TO THE general public, Michael Aris was best known as the husband of the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Burma's democratic opposition. He was, however, also a scholar of great stature and learning in the field of Tibetan and Himalayan studies, the foremost expert on Bhutan in the West, and he enjoyed immense respect among his colleagues in England and throughout the world. As one of the first Tibetologists to combine the study of textual sources with work in the field, he travelled extensively throughout the Himalayas.

While still in his early twenties, Michael Aris was offered what must have been one of the most exotic teaching posts imaginable: he was appointed private tutor of the children of the royal family of the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. Living for six years in what was then one of the most inaccessible countries in the world, he not only acquired fluency in Dzongkha, the national language of Bhutan, but, more importantly, developed a deep and enduring interest in Bhutanese history, culture and religion.

This scholarly as well as personal commitment became the foundation of a brilliant academic career, of which the first publication was a pioneer study of Bhutanese history - the first of its kind in any language. Bhutan: the early history of a Himalayan kingdom (1979) has remained a standard work of reference. This was followed in 1982 by Views of Medieval Bhutan: the diary of Samuel Davis 1783 (published jointly in Britain and the United States in 1982) and in 1994 by a study of the history of the Bhutanese royal family, The Raven Crown: the origins of Buddhist monarchy in Bhutan (1994).

Aris was beyond any doubt the leading authority on Bhutan in the West. In an Asian context, however, Bhutan, while having always remained staunchly politically independent, is in cultural and religious terms part of the vast area of Tibetan civilisation. It was therefore inevitable that Aris's interest should before long extend to Tibet. Having already mastered Classical Tibetan while in Bhutan, he also learnt to speak modern Central Tibetan, and eventually also travelled to Tibet.

In a remarkable book dealing with two of the most enigmatic figures of the Himalayan and Tibetan world, Hidden Treasures and Secret Lives: a study of Pemalingpa (1450-1521) and the Sixth Dalai Lama (1683-1706), published in London in 1989, he combined his dual interest in Bhutanese and Tibetan history.

During the last 20 years, the study of Tibetan history, art, religion, and society has seen a remarkable expansion, becoming a major field within Oriental studies. This is a development with which Michael Aris was intimately associated. He was a founding member of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, and served as a member of its board. He convened the second international conference of the association and hosted it at St John's College, Oxford, in July 1979 (where he had become a junior research fellow in 1976), thus strengthening the strong ties, stretching back 200 years, between Great Britain and Tibet as well as Bhutan.

In 1972 he had married Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Aung San, the leader of Burma's struggle for independence in the 1940s, who was himself gunned down by a political rival in 1947. Suu Kyi told Aris that if her people ever needed her, she would not fail them, and in the introduction to Freedom from Fear: writings and appreciations of Aung San Suu Kyi (1991), he described how, in 187 letters to him when he was in Bhutan in the months before they married, she constantly reminded him that one day she would have to return to Burma. "Sometimes I am beset by fears that circumstances and national considerations might tear us apart just when we are so happy in each other that separation would be a torment," she wrote. "And yet such fears are so futile and inconsequential: if we love and cherish each other as much as we can while we can, I am sure love and compassion will triumph in the end."

Together with Aung San Suu Kyi, Aris edited the papers of the 1979 Oxford conference as Tibetan Studies in Honour of Hugh Richardson (1979). The honour thus shown to Richardson was highly appropriate. Born in 1905, he had spent many years as the representative of British India (and, subsequently, of India) in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, between 1936 and 1950, and, on retirement, became a noted scholar of Tibetan history. Recently, Aris edited the collected writings of Hugh Richardson on Tibetan history and culture in a volume entitled - borrowing an expression by which the Tibetans in the eighth century referred to their country - High Peaks, Pure Earth (1998).

The complex relationship between Tibet and Great Britain was a topic to which Michael Aris devoted much attention. In an academic climate in which the West seems to be increasingly focusing on its own perception of "others", Aris was more concerned with the Tibetan perception of the West. Thus, one of his articles, published in 1994, was characteristically entitled "India and the British according to a Tibetan text of the late 18th century".

Aris was born one of identical twin boys in Havana, Cuba, in 1946 (his brother Anthony is a publisher; his Serindia Publications specialises in high quality scholarly books on Tibetan and Himalayan culture and history). After attending Worth School he studied history at Durham University from 1964 to 1967, and while private tutor to the Bhutanese royal family he became head of that government's translation department (1967-73). On his return to Britain he spent eight years at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University, before joining St John's College, Oxford, as a junior research fellow in 1976. He was a research fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford, from 1980 to 1989. For a couple of years in the mid-1980s he was a research fellow at the Indian Institute of Higher Studies at Simla.

In 1988 Aung San Suu Kyi returned to Myanmar (as Burma is now called) to nurse her dying mother. While there, the country's military ruler since 1962, Ne Win, announced that he was resigning and that a referendum on Burma's political future would be held. Suu Kyi, as daughter of Burma's independence hero, soon emerged as the leader of Burma's movement for democracy. The military stepped in to crush it, however, and placed Suu Kyi under house arrest from 1989 to 1995, during which time she won the Nobel Peace Prize. Although Aris and their two sons were allowed to visit Suu Kyi several times in the last decade, he had been refused a visa since 1996.

Though Michael Aris was very concerned and involved with the situation in Burma, and he and his wife had always made efforts that their children should feel at home there, he had no wish to get involved in politics himself. Apart from his family life and commitments, which were extremely strong, he regarded himself first and foremost as an academic.

Having trained as an historian Aris maintained a rigorous and uncompromising standard of professionalism and intellectual honesty. Occasionally this brought him into conflict with traditional views of history cherished by Tibetan as well as Bhutanese society, but in the long run this honesty, together with his profound respect for both cultures, only served to increase the esteem and friendship of countless Tibetans and Bhutanese, including, over the decades, that of the Bhutanese royal family.

Since 1989 Michael Aris had been a Fellow of St Antony's College, Oxford, where he generously devoted much of his time to teaching Tibetan to a new generation of students. It was his ambition, which he sadly did not live to see fulfilled, firmly to establish Tibetan and Himalayan studies on a permanent institutional basis at Oxford.

Per Kvaerne

Michael Vaillancourt Aris, Tibetologist: born Havana, Cuba 27 March 1946; Junior Research Fellow, St John's College, Oxford 1976-89; Research Fellow, Wolfson College 1980-89; Research Fellow, St Antony's College, Oxford 1989-96, Senior Research Fellow 1996-99; married 1972 Aung San Suu Kyi (two sons); died Oxford 27 March 1999.

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