The Untold Love Story of Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi
Aung San Suu Kyi, whose story is told in a new film, went from devoted Oxford housewife to champion of Burmese democracy — but not without great personal sacrifice.
By Rebecca Frayn
When I began to research a screenplay about Aung San Suu Kyi four years ago, I wasn’t expecting to uncover one of the great love stories of our time. Yet what emerged was a tale so romantic — and yet so heartbreaking — it sounded more like a pitch for a Hollywood weepie: an exquisitely beautiful but reserved girl from the East meets a handsome and passionate young man from the West.
For Michael Aris the story is a coup de foudre, and he eventually proposes to Suu amid the snow-capped mountains of Bhutan, where he has been employed as tutor to its royal family. For the next 16 years, she becomes his devoted wife and a mother-of-two, until quite by chance she gets caught up in politics on a short trip to Burma, and never comes home.
Tragically, after 10 years of campaigning to try to keep his wife safe, Michael dies of cancer without ever being allowed to say goodbye.
I also discovered that the reason no one was aware of this story was because Dr Michael Aris had gone to great lengths to keep Suu’s family out of the public eye. It is only because their sons are now adults — and Michael is dead — that their friends and family feel the time has come to speak openly, and with great pride, about the unsung role he played.
The daughter of a great Burmese hero, General Aung San, who was assassinated when she was only two, Suu was raised with a strong sense of her father’s unfinished legacy. In 1964 she was sent by her diplomat mother to study Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford, where her guardian, Lord Gore-Booth, introduced her to Michael. He was studying history at Durham but had always had a passion for Bhutan – and in Suu he found the romantic embodiment of his great love for the East. But when she accepted his proposal, she struck a deal: if her country should ever need her, she would have to go. And Michael readily agreed.
For the next 16 years, Suu Kyi was to sublimate her extraordinary strength of character and become the perfect housewife. When their two sons, Alexander and Kim, were born she became a doting mother too, noted for her punctiliously well-organised children’s parties and exquisite cooking. Much to the despair of her more feminist friends, she even insisted on ironing her husband’s socks and cleaning the house herself.
Then one quiet evening in 1988, when her sons were 12 and 14, as she and Michael sat reading in Oxford, they were interrupted by a phone call to say Suu’s mother had had a stroke.
She at once flew to Rangoon for what she thought would be a matter of weeks, only to find a city in turmoil. A series of violent confrontations with the military had brought the country to a standstill, and when she moved into Rangoon Hospital to care for her mother, she found the wards crowded with injured and dying students. Since public meetings were forbidden, the hospital had become the centre-point of a leaderless revolution, and word that the great General’s daughter had arrived spread like wildfire.
When a delegation of academics asked Suu to head a movement for democracy, she tentatively agreed, thinking that once an election had been held she would be free to return to Oxford again. Only two months earlier she had been a devoted housewife; now she found herself spearheading a mass uprising against a barbaric regime.
In England, Michael could only anxiously monitor the news as Suu toured Burma, her popularity soaring, while the military harassed her every step and arrested and tortured many of her party members. He was haunted by the fear that she might be assassinated like her father. And when in 1989 she was placed under house arrest, his only comfort was that it at least might help keep her safe.
Michael now reciprocated all those years Suu had devoted to him with a remarkable selflessness of his own, embarking on a high-level campaign to establish her as an international icon that the military would never dare harm. But he was careful to keep his work inconspicuous, because once she emerged as the leader of a new democracy movement, the military seized upon the fact that she was married to a foreigner as a basis for a series of savage — and often sexually crude — slanders in the Burmese press.
For the next five years, as her boys were growing into young men, Suu was to remain under house arrest and kept in isolation. She sustained herself by learning how to meditate, reading widely on Buddhism and studying the writings of Mandela and Gandhi.
Michael was allowed only two visits during that period. Yet this was a very particular kind of imprisonment, since at any time Suu could have asked to be driven to the airport and flown back to her family.
But neither of them ever contemplated her doing such a thing. In fact, as a historian, even as Michael agonised and continued to pressurise politicians behind the scenes, he was aware she was part of history in the making. He kept on display the book she had been reading when she received the phone call summoning her to Burma. He decorated the walls with the certificates of the many prizes she had by now won, including the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize. And above his bed he hung a huge photograph of her.
Inevitably, during the long periods when no communication was possible, he would fear Suu might be dead, and it was only the odd report from passers-by who heard the sound of her piano-playing drifting from the house that brought him peace of mind. But when the south-east Asian humidity eventually destroyed the piano, even this fragile reassurance was lost to him.
Then, in 1995, Michael quite unexpectedly received a phone call from Suu. She was ringing from the British embassy, she said. She was free again! Michael and the boys were granted visas and flew to Burma.
When Suu saw Kim, her younger son, she was astonished to see he had grown into a young man. She admitted she might have passed him in the street. But Suu had become a fully politicised woman whose years of isolation had given her a hardened resolve, and she was determined to remain in her country, even if the cost was further separation from her family.
The journalist Fergal Keane, who has met Suu several times, describes her as having a core of steel.
It was the sheer resilience of her moral courage that filled me with awe as I wrote my screenplay for The Lady. The first question many women ask when they hear Suu’s story is how she could have left her children. Kim has said simply: “She did what she had to do.” Suu Kyi herself refuses to be drawn on the subject, though she has conceded that her darkest hours were when “I feared the boys might be needing me”.
That 1995 visit was the last time Michael and Suu were ever allowed to see one another. Three years later, he learnt he had terminal cancer. He called Suu to break the bad news and immediately applied for a visa so that he could say goodbye in person. When his application was rejected, he made over 30 more as his strength rapidly dwindled. A number of eminent figures — among them the Pope and President Clinton — wrote letters of appeal, but all in vain. Finally, a military official came to see Suu. Of course she could say goodbye, he said, but to do so she would have to return to Oxford.
The implicit choice that had haunted her throughout those 10 years of marital separation had now become an explicit ultimatum: your country or your family. She was distraught. If she left Burma, they both knew it would mean permanent exile — that everything they had jointly fought for would have been for nothing. Suu would call Michael from the British embassy when she could, and he was adamant that she was not even to consider it.
When I met Michael’s twin brother, Anthony, he told me something he said he had never told anyone before. He said that once Suu realised she would never see Michael again, she put on a dress of his favourite colour, tied a rose in her hair, and went to the British embassy, where she recorded a farewell film for him in which she told him that his love for her had been her mainstay. The film was smuggled out, only to arrive two days after Michael died.
For many years, as Burma’s human rights record deteriorated, it seemed the Aris family’s great self-sacrifice might have been in vain. Yet in recent weeks the military have finally announced their desire for political change. And Suu’s 22-year vigil means she is uniquely positioned to facilitate such a transition — if and when it comes — exactly as Mandela did so successfully for South Africa.
As they always believed it would, Suu and Michael’s dream of democracy may yet become a reality.