In Myanmar, she's known to millions of her fellow citizens as simply “The Lady.” The rest of the world knows Aung San Suu Kyi, 67, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and icon of peaceful political resistance in Myanmar, as what CNN called “one of the few genuine heroes of our time, someone in the mold of Nelson Mandela and Mohandas Ghandhi.”
After enduring years of house arrest under Myanmar's military junta, she was released in 2010 and in April was elected to Parliament as head of the National League for Democracy, an opposition party.
While Suu Kyi's elegant and restrained public persona is well known, her personal background is not as familiar, yet it has all the dramatic elements of a Hollywood movie. Indeed, a movie of her life, “The Lady,” was recently released, starring Michelle Yeoh.
She was born in 1945 to Gen. Aung San, Myanmar's revered independence fighter and founder of the modern Burmese army. When she was 2 years old her father was assassinated by political rivals, just six months before Myanmar (then known as Burma) gained independence from the United Kingdom.
In 1960 she left Myanmar for New Delhi, where her mother, Daw Khin Kyi, was Myanmar's ambassador to India. Four years later she went to Oxford University, where she studied politics, philosophy and economics.
There she met and married an Oxford academic, Michael Aris, and settled into a cozy domestic life as a young housewife. They had two sons. “She is remembered there as a dutiful housewife who produced home-cooked meals every day, ironed her husband's socks, and sewed her own curtains and clothes,” one writer noted about her time in Oxford. Then, as in a movie, a phone call suddenly and dramatically changed her life.
Her mother was seriously ill, and Suu Kyi flew back to care for her in 1988. While in Myanmar, she was caught up in a major political upheaval and, as Gen. Aung San's daughter, was enlisted to lead an opposition movement. In an instant, the socks-ironing expatriate wife had become a political activist, helping her fellow Burmese in their moment of need. As she famously told a crowd at the time, “I could not, as my father's daughter, remain indifferent to all that was going on.”
Michael Aris, an Oxford academic and the husband of 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, stands with their two sons next to a photo of his wife while attending the award ceremony in Oslo in December 1991. Suu Kyi, under house arrest in Myanmar at the time, was not allowed to attend. Aris, who was repeatedly denied a visa to Myanmar to visit his wife, died of cancer in 1999. (Reuters/Scanpix)
Her husband joined her in Rangoon (now called Yangon) and helped her as she traveled around the country promoting peaceful political reform. However, her popularity angered — and threatened — the military dictator, Ne Win, who placed her under house arrest and had Michael deported.
Although she was free to travel to England to see her husband, she feared the government would forbid her from returning to Burma. Separated from her husband and sons, she remained a prisoner in her own home. The family was reunited briefly in 1995 in Myanmar, when she was temporarily freed.
It was the last time husband and wife would ever see one another. Three years later, Michael was diagnosed with terminal cancer, but he was refused a visa to visit his wife.
Thirty more visa applications were refused, despite letters of appeal from President Bill Clinton, Pope John Paul II and others. The military rulers made Suu Kyi an offer: She could travel to England to see Michael and her sons, but she could not return to Myanmar. As one writer explained, “The implicit choice that had haunted her throughout 10 years of marital separation had now become an explicit ultimatum: Your country or your family.”
Michael backed her decision to stay in Myanmar. They spoke only a few times. Finally, knowing the end was near, she put on a dress she knew he loved and made an emotional, private farewell film for him in 1999. It had to be smuggled out of the country. Michael died two days before it arrived.
Suu Kyi rarely speaks of personal matters and is quick to brush aside questions she considers too private. But her biographer has shed some light on the dilemma she faced in 1999. “She has been attacked for being cold or unfeeling, but she couldn't show the regime she was suffering,” said Peter Popham. “Her anguish was genuine and profound.”
In public, at least, the Lady never shed a tear.
— Robert Kiener