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As posted on Soc.CultureBurma

by Barbara Bradley

In the months before their wedding day on January 1, 1972,
Aung San Suu Kyi and Michael Aris sent each other love
letters almost every day. Suu Kyi (pronounced soo-chee), a
delicate Burmese woman, was at the time working for the
United  Nations in New York, and Aris, a young British
scholar, was tutoring the royal family in Bhutan. The
correspondence of most young couples in their position would
be full of last - minute adjustments to honeymoon plans and
seating arrangements.=20

But Michael Aris and Suu Kyi are not most couples.=20

"I only ask one thing: that should my people need me, you
would help me to do my duty by them,"  Suu Kyi wrote to her

"Would you mind very much should such a situation ever
arise? How probable it is I do not know, but the possibility is

Fast - forward to July 10, 1995.

At 4:00 in the afternoon, a white car pulled up to the gate at=20
54 University Avenue in Yangon, Myanmar (commonly
known by its colonial name, Rangoon, Burma). It was a rare
event: Almost no one was allowed  to enter the house, an
elegant crumbling villa that imprisoned the world's most
famous dissident. The military guard glanced in the car
window, saluted briskly, and opened the gates, allowing the
colonel in the car to enter the compound.=20

The moment went unnoticed, except by a few Japanese
diplomats who had been tipped off to watch the gate from their
ambassador's residence.

As for the press, it hadn't a clue that Nobel laureate Aung San
Suu Kyi had just gained her freedom. In Oxford, England,
Michael Aris was only then learning of his wife's release, and it
would be another two hours before crowds of supporters in
Rangoon gathered in front of her home.=20

The unconditional release stunned virtually everyone, except
perhaps Suu Kyi herself. In the war of wills between this
fragile beauty and the 21 generals who constitute Burma's
military junta, the outcome had been determined the day Suu
Kyi was detained six years earlier.

"Well, I knew I was not going to give up, but there was always
the possibility that I would die before they released me," Suu
Kyi told me in an hour - long interview two weeks after her
release. She laughed. "I could have been bitten by a tarantula
or something like that."=20

Told in epic strokes, the story of Aung San Suu Kyi seems
straightforward. In March 1988, this housewife and mother  of
two returned to Rangoon from Oxford to care for her dying
mother. The daughter of General Aung San, the Burmese
equivalent of George Washington, who negotiated
the country's independence from the British in 1947 and was
assassinated the same year, she was swept into a roiling
pro-democracy revolution against Burma's military dictator.
Over the next year, her popularity reached mythic proportions,
threatening to topple the military government, which
responded by placing her under house arrest on July 20, 1989.
In 1991, while still under detention, she won the Nobel Peace
Prize. Given the choice of leaving the country or remaining in
isolation, Suu Kyi chose to wait it out in her home, until she
walked out last July, on her own terms.

Behind the clean headlines of epic history, however, lies a
tangle of questions about the private story of Aung San Suu
Kyi. How did an ordinary suburban mom transform herself
into a national icon and a Nobel laureate? Given the choice
between her Western family and her Burmese heritage, which
would she choose? What are the personal costs of her power,
and who is actually paying them?

Interviews with Suu Kyi and dozens of her followers, friends,
and family members suggest that her political ascent was
inevitable. When Sun Kyi moved to the West, she left behind
not only her country  but her considerable legacy. And like a
salmon in its upstream search, she has spent the past decade
working back toward her homeland. Perhaps unconsciously at
first, and now definitively, she is shedding her Western home
and family for a future in Burmese politics.=20

The first time I met Aung San Suu Kyi, she was surrounded by
two dozen big, perspiring foreign journalists, most of them
men, who had been invited to her home for an off - the - record
gathering. It was July 19, 1995, her ninth day of freedom after
six years in isolation. The  reporters formed a small bubble of
personal space around her, almost as if they feared breaking
this doll- like creature, five feet four inches and 106 pounds, so
cool and composed in the sultry afternoon. At 50, she had not a
strand of gray hair nor a line on her face, and she moved with
the litheness of a woman half her age.

In public, Suu Kyi exudes warmth and openness. But she
shields her personal life fiercely and will no longer allow
journalists to meet her husband. I interviewed Michael Aris
last year for a book project, and when I saw Suu Kyi after her
release, she insisted that her husband not be quoted directly.  It
was an odd request, since everything that Aris or friends say
about her borders on eulogy. Her steely determination about
this issue showed me what the military government had been
up against. And her refusal to discuss her family- "I will not
allow my husband or my sons to be involved in my political
career," she says- seems to have as much to do with politics as
with privacy. For one thing, her marriage to a citizen of
Britain, the very colonizers whom Suu Kyi's father had ejected
in 1947, is a liability that is clearly on her mind.=20

But aside from the public - relations problem, the marriage
presents thorny legal issues. According to Burma's
constitution- both the current  one and the one being written
now no one who is married to a
foreigner can run for political office. In addition, the new
constitution may disqualify anyone whose children have
foreign citizenship (Suu Kyi's sons, Alexander, 22, and Kim,
eighteen, do). So even if Aung San Suu Kyi and Aris were
divorced - a hot topic of conversation on the streets of
Rangoon, but one that friends of Suu Kyi dismiss, she could
not become an elected leader. In short, her entire family
is a political burden.

When Suu Kyi's father was assassinated by political rivals on
the eve of his becoming independent Burma's first leader, the
daughter he left behind was only two. His death left a political
vacuum that was eventually filled by General Ne Win, a
military dictator who ruled the country for 26 years through a
combination of terror and a bizarre form of socialism, jailing
opponents and becoming a major target of Amnesty

At the age of fifteen, Suu Kyi left Burma with her mother, who
had been appointed ambassador to India, and later moved to
Oxford to study at the university. At that time, friends say, Suu
Kyi showed none of the political ambitions that a fellow
undergraduate, Benazir Bhutto, exhibited. Her classmate and
friend Ann Pasternak Slater first noticed Suu Kyi's thick black
ponytail anchored with a white flower, and her clothes "tight
and crisp and starched" -something of a departure from the
dress code at Oxford in the sixties. But Suu Kyi's more
enduring characteristic, Slater says, involved her strict morals.
She didn't drink or smoke, and she was saving her virginity for
marriage. "She was a clear judge of what was right and
wrong," Slater says.=20

After graduation and a short stint at the UN, Suu Kyi married
Michael Aris in 1972 and, after some traveling, settled down
in  Oxford. They had met six years earlier, and initially Suu
Kyi showed little interest in the young British scholar. Friends
say she was conscious even then of how marriage to a
Westerner would be seen in Burma.=20

Indeed, U Chit Myaung, then Burma's ambassador to Britain,
declined  to attend the strict Buddhist wedding ceremony 'The
Burmese people would not like the daughter of Aung San
marrying a foreigner, " recalls U Chit Myaing, who now lives
in Potomac, Maryland. "I knew that if I attended the wedding,
I would be fired that day"

In their tiny apartment, Aris worked on his Ph.D. in Tibetan
studies while Suu Kyi raised their two sons. Frequent Burmese
visitors cramped the space even further. "Life was quite tough,=20
financially and otherwise," says Evelyn Aris, Michael's

Suu Kyi sewed the family's clothes, and since she did not drive
(she failed the driver's test), she carted the kids to school  by
bicycle, or they walked.

>From England, Suu Kyi kept a close eye on events in Burma,
which had crumbled under two decades of repression under
General Ne Win. In the eighties, the dictator became
increasingly irrational, consulting astrologers about policy and
eventually turning Burma - which had been considered one of
the most promising Asian nations after World War II- into one
of the poorest nations on earth.

By contrast, Suu Kyi's family was beginning to prosper. They
moved into a large town house in north Oxford, and Aris
landed various research fellowships. At this point some friends
began to notice Suu Kyi becoming restless with her British life.=20

"When the children began to grow up, so that the youngest was
five or seven or so, she started talking about impatience with
what she was doing," says Slater.

But how did Suu Kyi move so smoothly from housewife to
Nobel laureate, with the prospect of leading an Asian nation?

Friends, family members, and Suu Kyi herself insist there was
no grand design. As Peter Carey, a friend and professor at
Oxford,  puts it, "I didn't get the sense that here was somebody
plotting  in an old Oxford house, like Lenin in Zurich, to get
back to Burma in a great political role."

But saying Suu Kyi happened onto greatness is like saying a
Kennedy stumbled into politics. "It makes a good Cinderella
story, but it doesn't make sense," says one diplomat in
Rangoon. "She's always had a strong sense of who she was, her

In 1985 she accepted a fellowship at Kyoto University in
Japan to  collect information about her father. She left Michael
and Alexander, taking the younger son, Kim, with her.

Maria Aung - Thwin, a friend from Kyoto, says that Suu Kyi
rarely mentioned Aris during that year. "It almost seemed to
me like she didn't have a husband," she says. "She never once
mentioned that she missed him... and it seemed that the farther
she was from him, the better it was for her, for what she
wanted to do."

It seems evident that a future in Burmese politics- and the=20
complications presented by her Western family- was already
on her mind. Another time, Aung - Thwin recalls, "she asked,
very indirectly, my opinion about if it were right for her to
choose her country over her children. And I said, Well, Suu, if
it were me, I would of course choose my family. ...' She
actually said it was a dilemma for her, but in the end her
conclusion was that she would choose her country."

The phone call that would take Suu Kyi from British
domesticity to Burmese politics came on March 31, 1988. Her
mother had suffered a severe stroke, and Suu Kyi immediately
flew to her side in Rangoon. Outside the hospital, students
were taking to the streets in ever - growing demonstrations
against General Ne Win. (On the advice of his astrologers, the
dictator had effectively voided the nation's monetary system;
Burmese woke up to find that their life savings had been wiped
out overnight.) Suu Kyi kept a low profile, torn between her
mother and the burgeoning democracy movement.

"When she considered taking up national politics, I said,
'Think again,' "recalls a friend who feared for his safety and=20
requested anonymity. " 'People will discredit you, say you are
greedy for power, entering politics when your mother is sick.
Besides that, you are married to a foreigner.' And she said, 'I
can't help it. I have already decided, and I have to sacrifice my
personal life to the limit.'

On August 8, 1988, soldiers were ordered to put down the
demonstrations decisively: Over several days, they shot down
some 3,000 students, monks, and others in a preview of
Tiananmen Square a year later.

 Eighteen days later, Suu Kyi finally yielded to pressure and
decided to speak out. Hundreds of thousands of people settled
on the grass before the gold- domed Shwedagon Pagoda, the
holiest place in Rangoon. When Suu Kyi stepped up to the
podium, the half - million listeners were astonished that she
looked and spoke exactly like her famous father. After her ten -
minute speech, in which she vowed to take up her father's
mission of freeing Burma from oppression, most felt that the
nation's political vacuum  had been filled.

Somewhere near the front of the audience, a 41 year old
Burmese artist whom I will call Valerie watched in rapt
silence. A few days later, she joined Suu Kyi's camp, fielding
phone calls from journalists  who had descended upon Suu
Kyi's home. The two women quickly became close friends.       =20

Swayed by the pressure of the growing democracy movement,
the military promised to hold democratic elections for a new
national parliament at some undetermined date, the first such
vote in nearly 30 years. And so Suu Kyi and two other
politicians formed the National League for Democracy
(N.L.D.). Over the next ten months, Valerie accompanied Suu
Kyi on the campaign trail, making sure she ate enough and
took her medicine. She held Suu Kyi down as their car jolted
along the rutted roads, preventing her delicate frame from
bouncing up and hitting the roof. Across the country, making
up to 25 speeches a day, Suu Kyi dazzled the crowds with her
simple message of what it is like to live in a democracy.=20

Soon she had become a cult figure.=20

I caught a glimpse of that adulation shortly  after she was
released last July Several hundred  people were waiting in
front of her home, as they did every afternoon. Surrounded by
aides, Suu Kyi strode down her walk and was hoisted by her
bodyguards onto a table just inside the front gate. Peering over
the metal bars, she spoke into a microphone, smiling, drawing=20
energy from the crowd. "Don't forget the struggle," she told
them, but to appease the hovering police, she also urged them
to be patient.

"Long live Aung San Suu Kyi," they shouted. I thought at the
time, it surely would be difficult to return to Oxford.=20

"When she was in England, she was a caterpillar, " says one of
her closest political advisers. "But when she came here, she
changed into a butterfly She became a politician."

During the 1988 - 89 campaign, Suu Kyi's family visited her
in Burma when they could, but she didn't let her husband tour
with her.

Increasingly, Aris remained in the shadows.  The tall
Englishman with the longish graying hair tried to defy the
Rambo image many Burmese hold of Western men; he rarely
spoke up around other people,  and to blend in he wore the
Burmese longyi instead of pants. Valerie describes Aris as
"very polite, very scholarly.  He doesn't really understand
what's going  on in the ordinary business world."

Suu Kyi's relationship with her country and her family
increasingly resembled a love triangle, and the Burmese
reveled in gaining the edge over her British husband. Military
leaders, for example, refer to Suu Kyi as "Mrs. Michael Aris."
Still, several Burmese told me, with obvious pride, how Suu
Kyi always put her country ahead of her family.   Apparently
duty to country over family runs in her gene pool. According
to Ma Than E Fend, a close family friend, Suu Kyi's mother=20
had an iron grip on her emotions. "When news came of [her
husband] being shot, she would not let a tear escape," Ma
Than E says.   Four years late Suu Kyi's brother drowned.=20
When she heard this news. the mother, who was then chairman
of the  Social Planning Commission. "didn't immediately drop
everything and come. She finished [her work] and then she
came home." says Ma Than E. 'Suu Kyi remembered that- that
her mother's sense of having to do her official duty was much
greater than her personal [concerns]."=20

In her diary. Valerie noted Suu Kyi's gradual  shift away from
her family. "Talked a bit about Alexander and Kim. Then she
fell silent," one 1989 entry reads. I could see her trying not to
cry. Then she said, 'I'd better concentrate on my new sons.'
"referring to the Burmese students who had become her
bodyguards. In 1989, Suu Kyi grew increasingly bold,
publicly placing blame for her country's ruinous state solidly at
the feet of General Ne Win, who had retired but was thought to
be running the country behind the scenes.   Though friends
warned her to tone down her language, she refused. "I've never
thought of myself as particularly fearless." says Suu Kyi, the
woman who once led 40 followers through a gauntlet of
soldiers with orders to shoot. "But I think that I'm less afraid of
the government because I have spent so much time in countries
where you don't have to be frightened of the government."=20
Over the following weeks. the government grew alarmed that
Sun Kyi would lead a democratic revolution. (With good
reason: Even with Sun Kyi in detention. the NLD won 81
percent of the seats in parliament in 1990; shortly afterward,
the government renounced  the election results and threw many
of the democratic winners in jail.) So. early in the morning of
July 20, 1989, the government finally acted: Eleven truckloads
of soldiers blocked off the entrance to Suu Kyi's home on
University Avenue.=20

Suu Kyi remained cool. I thought if they were going to take
me to prison, I must have a bag ready. I packed a bag with
essentials, such as toothbrushes and toothpaste and a change of
clothes. And then we all had a nice time," she says with
devastating understatement. With her at home were her
political advisers, students, and her sons. While they waited for
their mother to he arrested, the boys - then sixteen and
twelve-played Monopoly with Valerie. Eventually several
soldiers came in, cut the phone line, and searched for
documents. "Kim asked his mother, Mummy are they going to
take you away?'" Valerie recalls.=20

"And she said, 'No, darling, I'm supposed to be kept locked up
in the house.' Kim seemed to take it in his stride." So did Alex,
Valerie says. "It's the British stiff- upper- lip training, and the
training of their  mother. who's been trained by her mother."=20

"I was not frightened for them," Suu Ky says. "I just asked the
others to make sure they got back to England to their father if
Michael were not able to come in.,' Her husband did arrive a
few days later and was permitted to stay with her in isolation
for several weeks. When Aris left in January 1990, it  would
be the last time he would see his wife for nearly two and half
years. The period of solitude would serve as a passageway to
Suu Kyi's new life, and when she emerged in July 1995. the
door leading to Burma was standing  wide open, and the door
back to Britain had been effectively shut.=20

Suu Kyi's home in England is tucked away on  a tree-lined
street. I visited it in 1994, to  interview MaThan E Fend. Aris
and Kim had traveled to Rangoon to visit Suu Kyi, who was
still under house arrest. Alexander, then 21, had disappeared
upstairs.  Sun poured through the town house on that July day,
but there was an eerie feel to it, akin to a shrine. On the mantel
perched photographs of Suu Kyi as a chubby little girl and
then older, with fragile beauty.   Above the fireplace hung a
good if  amateurish painting of Buddha. Suu Kyi had painted it
in detention for her husband's birthday. The dining room had
been converted into a Suu Kyi command - and - control
station, with a computer containing 1,000 of her speeches and
a row of some 20 videotapes of her tours and news programs.=20

In detention, Suu Kyi could neither send nor receive mail, and
her phone line remained cut. After the first two and a half
years, Aris visited three times a year (finances, not visa
restrictions, prevented him from going more often); the boys
spent summers and Christmas vacations in detention with their
mother. The visits with the boys, she wrote to a friend (in a
letter smuggled out by Aris), filled her with "mixed emotions."

 "I know that whatever sacrifices my family and I have to
make are very small compared to the troubles and
uncertainties suffered by those of my colleagues who have not
the protection of a famous father and international
recognition," she wrote.=20

One wonders what her family would say about that. The boys
weathered their mother's metamorphosis with varying degrees
of success. Ma Than E saw the difference as early as 1988,
when the democracy movement was just being launched. "I
think Kim got the fun side of it- all the supporters of Suu in the
compound with whom he played," she says. "But I think
Alexander saw the more serious side of it."=20

Friends describe Alex as a quiet, academic sort, a big reader. =20
He enrolled in Georgetown University's School of Foreign
Service in 1992 but went on a leave of absence after two years.
One friend says he had trouble coping  with his mother's
incarceration. After living in Oxford for a year, he plans to
study Burmese at Northern Illinois University in De Kalb,
according to his professor, Saw Tun.=20

Kim is more resilient. This boy, who was fascinated by toy
guns and now plays guitar in a rock group with his friends, is
said to have glided through the ordeal. I saw Kim in Rangoon
recently - a tall teenager with long black hair.  At the time I
wondered why only Kim, and not Alex, had traveled to
Rangoon after their mother's release. I was told that Alex was
visiting a friend in Austria.=20

Aris himself was thrust into a role he never expected: a single
parent raising two boys and traveling for his academic
research, trying to make tenure at Oxford. More jarring,
perhaps, was his transformation from a quiet Tibetan scholar
into a political activist.=20

"He had nothing to do with my political work at all until I was
placed under house arrest, " Suu Kyi says. 'And then, of
course, he did what he could to help me, which he has as my
husband, who had a responsibility and duty to do it. Politics is
not the least bit his forte."

Some of Suu Kyi's supporters credit Aris with garnering the
necessary political support for her Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.
He also carried  out speeches for his wife, becoming her link
with the outside world.

Two weeks after her release, I ask Suu Kyi about her
confinement. We sit in a dim ante room, the warm air blown
about by a loud fan.  Her traditional teal cotton blouse,
long-sleeved and collarless, fits snugly on her childlike body.=20

I ask her how she survived the boredom. "It's not at all boring.
I never had enough time to do everything I wanted to do," she
says. "The day would come to an end, and I still wouldn't have
finished some book or something.  My life was very full."    =20
And then, strangely, she begins to come alive in what has
heretofore been a chilly interview.  The distinct impression is
that Aung San Suu Kyi savored  the quiet of house arrest.
Unprompted, she begins to tick off her schedule.=20

"My life revolved around the radio. After my meditation in the
morning at 5:30, I had to listen to the BBC World Service
news. Then at 6:00 it was the Burmese VOA program, and
then at 6:30 it was the Burmese BBC program."   She laughs
with genuine delight. "And when Michael came, he said I was
so much more in touch with the news than he was."      She
continues her schedule: Next she exercised, an activity
distinctly more upscale since Am brought her a Nordic Track
last summer. She listened to more shortwave radio,     took a
bath, ate breakfast.   She read voraciously  (biographies and
Jane Austen), since her husband  was allowed to bring in
books. She did household chores, including, she points out,
sewing the pink curtains hanging at the windows.   She ate
lunch, often prepared by her maid, Maria, who, as her only
companion, was allowed to do her shopping. She then listened
to the noon news, did more chores, writing and mending,
listened to cultural programs on the BBC, and wrapped up the
day with dinner,  another bath, and a final dose of radio.=20
There's something of a clinical quality to Suu Kyi's resolve.
Unable to see her family very often, she coped with the
separation 'The  way most prisoners do in the same situation,"=20
she says. 'You learn to control your thoughts."=20

In spring 1992, through her government liaison officer
(nicknamed "the babysitter"), Suu Kyi requested a meeting
with two political advisers who were in Rangoon's Insein
Prison. The request was denied, but as a sop, the government
said it was granting a visa to Michael Aris, whom she had not
seen in nearly two and a half years. When Suu Kyi heard this,
according to U Kyi Maung, her senior adviser, "she said, 'No,
you can't do that. If you have such a thing in mind, you must
ask me first. Without my permission, I will not receive

But Aris arrived anyway on May 5, perhaps unaware of the
feud. "She stood on the steps and said, 'You cannot come here,'
" recalls  U Kyi Maung and laughs. "He had to sleep in her
aunt's house!"    U Kyi Maung offered this anecdote to
illustrate Suu Kyi's unbending stand. But I kept thinking, Has
she ventured so far that her previous life - 23 years of marriage
has disappeared in the distance? Then again, one hardly blinks
an eye when a man sacrifices his personal life for his ideals.
Am I holding her  to a different standard?=20

The war of wills continued between Suu Kyi and the junta. In
1992 Aris began sending his wife food, tapes, books, and
toiletries through the British Embassy. In an effort to smear
Suu Kyi's reputation, the government publicized the gifts in the
newspaper, complete with photos of the offending lipstick and
Jane Fonda exercise book.  Angry about the publicity, she then
refused to accept food, goods, or electricity from the
government According to one military intelligence officer, her
food supplies dwindled to one container of rice. About this
time news reports  surfaced in London that Suu Kyi was
staging a hunger strike, panicking her family.  Her weight
dropped below 100 pounds.   She eventually worked out an
arrangement by which she would sell furniture, using the
government as intermediary, to raise money to buy food. Soon
few pieces remained, but as it turned out, the military only put
them in storage. (It has now offered to return them, but she
refuses to accept them until she can raise the money to buy
them back.)=20

The Nobel Peace Prize had given Suu Kyi enormous leverage
with her captors. Soon thereafter, the military began to think
about how it could get rid of this martyr of its own creating.
One way had failed completely: playing on her ties to her
British family. The military offered to end her detention if only
she would leave the country. Each morning Suu Kyi woke up
and decided between family and country, between freedom and
isolation,  at the very time her two teenage sons were growing
up without her.=20

"There was no question of my leaving," she says when asked
about this. "I never thought of it as a real choice at all." She
points out that her sons lived "in a good, comfortable home,"
unlike her Burmese colleagues. Where her sons fit into all this
is unclear; after all, they have her near- royal lineage.
According to Ma Than E, "They felt she had to be there. They
felt that was her destiny. But I don't think they felt it was their

For Suu Kyi, that destiny of restoring democracy to Burma
looms far larger now than on the day of her detention. "If you
are a political prisoner, you become thoroughly politicized,"
she observes. "So I became far more political after I had been
placed under house arrest. And everything I did, I did always
with my cause in mind."  As she says this, I survey the room,
crammed with artifacts from her political life. We sit at the
scuffed teak table that was used for strategy sessions during the
1988 - 89  campaign and has once again become  the nerve
center of democratic activity. Pinned to the wall behind her
hangs a huge textile stencil of her father- the same portrait that
served as her backdrop when she launched her political life at
Shwedagon Pagoda. Gracing another wall are old sepia
photographs of her parents but none of her husband and sons.
It is a political museum and points to where her future lies.  I
ask Suu Kyi if her husband will be returning  to England. "Yes
of course, his work is there."  How long will she remain in
Burma? "I've always said I will dedicate my life to building up
a genuine democratic system in Burma. And that's what I must

How long will that take? "That could take a long time. It could
take all my life."  =20