Can Aung San Suu Kyi, Now Free, Lead Burma to Democracy?

Aung San Suu Kyi Family
In the early years of her marriage to Michael Aris, Suu Kyi settled into domesticity, caring for the couple’s two boys in their Oxford home. Aris Family Collection via Getty Images

As the jubilant crowds surged around Aung San Suu Kyi on her release from house arrest in 2010, I couldn’t but think of David and Goliath. How had such a fragile figure of a woman singlehandedly managed to withstand the might of one of the world’s most brutal military regimes for the past 22 years? She has had three particularly close brushes with death at its hands: in 1989 she faced down the guns of hostile soldiers who had been ordered to shoot her where she stood; a few years later she survived a hunger strike intended to get her fellow party workers released from prison; and more recently still, in 2003, she miraculously escaped an assassination attempt while on the campaign trail. Her resolute determination to establish democracy in Burma has rightfully earned her a place alongside Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi. Yet behind Suu Kyi’s apparently unshakable courage lies a story of immense personal sacrifice. For during her long years under house arrest in Rangoon, her two sons were growing up in England without her, while her husband, the Oxford academic Michael Aris, died in 1999 without ever being allowed to say goodbye. Few of us could imagine being asked to choose our country over our family, as she has effectively had to do. Fewer still could imagine living so stoically with the ongoing consequences of that choice.

My fascination with Aung San Suu Kyi was triggered when I visited Burma in 1991 with my then boyfriend, now husband. We were trying to decide whether to get married, and why we thought a country with such a dire human-rights record was the place to go to resolve that question, I’m at a loss to explain now. As we passed signs instructing us to “Love the Motherland” and stating that “Only When There Is Discipline Will There Be Progress,” accompanied at all times by a government minder, it often felt as if we had tumbled headlong into Orwell’s 1984. And wherever we went, the Burmese would sidle up, anxious to share with us the depths of their misery and despair. Despite our minders’ attempts to control what we saw, it was apparent that this country—once the richest in Asia—had been reduced to abject poverty by the generals’ iron rule.

Though Suu Kyi had by then been under house arrest for two years, she had won a landslide victory in the 1990 elections, and you had only to whisper her name for people’s faces to light up. Suu Kyi is the only daughter of a great Burmese hero, Gen. Aung San, who is celebrated to this day for his role in negotiating independence from British colonial rule in Burma and founding the modern Burmese Army. He was assassinated in 1947, six months before independence came to fruition. Though Suu Kyi was only 2 years old when he died, she grew up surrounded by the mythology of the great Aung San and his unfinished political mission, and many Burmese view her as his reincarnation. I couldn’t but be deeply touched by the sense of hope her unseen presence offered these profoundly demoralized people, and in the long years that followed I often thought of them waiting for Suu Kyi to step from the wings like Aslan in Narnia. And so four years ago I set about writing a screenplay that has now become a feature film, The Lady, directed by Luc Besson and starring Michelle Yeoh and David Thewlis. The film is about to open in the U.S., but pirate copies are already causing something of a sensation on the streets of Burma.

In order to research the project, I contacted as many of Suu Kyi’s friends and family as I could. And when I discovered from them how tirelessly her husband, Michael Aris, had worked to support her behind the scenes, it quickly became apparent that here was my film—a poignant love story that has all the ingredients of an old-fashioned Hollywood epic. They were, from the outset, a strikingly diverse couple. Michael was tall, blond, blue-eyed; he loved to smoke and drink, and was gregarious, holding forth in a rolling theatrical voice. Suu was tiny and dark-haired, a teetotaler, and extremely reserved. They met when Suu left Burma to study philosophy, politics, and economics at Oxford in 1964. Dressed in a traditional lungi, with a flower always in her hair, she cut an arrestingly beautiful figure, and Michael was instantly smitten. He was studying modern history but had a particular passion for Tibet, Bhutan, and Nepal, 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 people should ever need her, she would have to return to them, she said. And Michael unhesitatingly agreed. It was a deal he was to honor until the bitter end.

Suu Kyi and Aris were married in 1972, and once he was offered a junior research fellowship at Oxford they settled in leafy suburbia. For the next 16 years Suu Kyi was an exemplary wife and, when their two sons were born, a doting mother. She gave herself as wholeheartedly to this intensely domestic phase of her life as she later did to her political career, and was soon noted for her cooking and for the exquisitely run birthday parties she organized for her sons. She even ironed Michael’s socks and cleaned the house in defiance of her more feminist friends.

The events that led to this Oxford housewife becoming one of the greatest human-rights campaigners of our time will appeal to anyone who believes in the hand of destiny. In 1988, as she and Aris sat reading one quiet evening in Oxford, Suu Kyi was interrupted by a phone call from Burma to say her mother had had a stroke. She at once began packing, promising to be back as soon as she could. In fact, she was never to return to Britain.

Suu Kyi’s arrival in Burma coincided with a period of major political upheaval. She headed straight to Rangoon Hospital to care for her mother, and found the wards filled with wounded and dying students who had been shot by the military in a series of violent confrontations. Thousands more had been killed in cold blood. By a bizarre quirk of fate, Suu Kyi had arrived on the front line of a leaderless revolution.She heard the students’ harrowing stories of brutality at first hand. And very quickly, despite her insistence that she had a family waiting for her in England, word spread that Gen. Aung San’s daughter had returned to help the Burmese people in their hour of need.

The school term ended in time for Aris and the boys to join her in Rangoon and watch the live broadcast in which Gen. Ne Win, a dictator of legendary brutality, announced to everyone’s astonishment that because of the scale of the unrest he would now hold an election. Aris looked on as a delegation of academics from Rangoon University came to ask Suu Kyi to head a new movement for democracy—arguing that the people would naturally unite behind her as her father’s daughter. Michael and Suu agonized over their request, the boys happily oblivious to the call of destiny their parents were wrestling with. She decided she would agree to help form an interim government, thinking that once a democratic framework was established she would be free to return to Oxford. Michael worked with her to prepare the first public speech she had ever given, which she delivered to an audience of half a million. Only two months earlier she had been raising her family quietly; now she spearheaded a mass uprising against a barbaric regime. The boys were sent back to boarding school in Britain, and Michael stayed on to support her for another two months until soldiers arrived one night to throw him out.

Aung San Suu Kyi Steve McCurry / Magnum

The couple had hoped it might take a few months, but very soon the months were slipping into years and the boys were growing into young men. For the next five years, despite being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, Suu Kyi was to remain under house arrest and in intense isolation. She sustained herself by learning how to meditate, reading widely on Buddhism and studying the writings of Mandela and Gandhi. Aris and the boys were allowed only two visits during that period. She was effectively a prisoner of conscience, since at any time she could have asked to be driven to the airport and flown back to her family. Indeed, the military would have leapt at such a request as an end to the impasse. But neither Suu Kyi nor Aris ever contemplated her doing any such thing.

As a historian, even as he struggled to keep depression at bay and lobbied politicians behind the scenes on Suu Kyi’s behalf, Aris was always aware they were 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. And above his bed he hung a huge photograph of her. Inevitably, during the long periods when communication was impossible, he would wonder if Suu Kyi was even still alive. Initially he would be cheered by occasional reports from passersby who heard the sound of her piano playing drifting from the house, but when the humidity eventually destroyed the piano, even this fragile reassurance was lost to him.

Then, quite unexpectedly, in 1995, Michael received a phone call from Suu. She was speaking from the British Embassy, she said. She was free again! Perhaps hoping that they might at last persuade her to leave, Aris and the boys were given visas. But they were greeted by a fully politicized woman whose years of isolation had burnished her political resolve into steel. It was the last time Michael and Suu were allowed to see one another. Three years later he learned he had terminal cancer. He called his wife to break the bad news and immediately applied for a visa so he could say goodbye in person.

When his application was rejected, he made more than 30 more as his strength rapidly dwindled. A number of eminent figures, among them Pope John Paul II and President Bill Clinton, wrote letters of appeal, but all in vain. Finally a military official came to see Suu Kyi. Of course she could say goodbye to her husband, he said, but to do so she would have to return to Oxford. The implicit choice that had haunted her throughout 10 years of marital separation had now become an explicit ultimatum. Your country or your family. She was distraught. If she left, they both knew it would mean permanent exile and the end of everything they had jointly fought for. Suu would call Michael from the British Embassy when she could, and Michael was always adamant when they spoke that she was not even to consider returning. When she finally accepted that she would never see him again, she put on a dress of his favorite color, tied a rose in her hair, and went to the British Embassy, where she recorded a farewell film in which she told him that his love for her had been her mainstay. The film had to be smuggled out, only to arrive two days after Michael died.

With characteristic steel, Suu Kyi has always deflected any attempts to discuss her suffering. When a journalist put it to her that the story of her marriage had all the makings of a Greek tragedy, she gave him short shrift. She reminded him she had made a choice. And it was the unwavering tenacity with which she has held to this choice that filled me with a deepening awe as I wrote. The poignancy of the Aris family’s sacrifice has always been compounded by the negligible political progress that was achieved, despite the 24 long years she has stood so firm—and, inevitably, some wondered if the personal cost could be justified.

Yet as we watch dictatorships tumble across the world, the Burmese military has finally announced political reforms, the most significant of which are the by-elections in which Suu Kyi and her party, the National League of Democracy, are to stand in April. Her support among the Burmese people has never been higher. As she embarked on her first campaign trip since becoming an official candidate last month, she encountered enthusiastic crowds all the way along her four-hour route from Rangoon to Pathein. And despite sweltering temperatures, more than 10,000 people waited to hear her speak in a packed sports stadium when she arrived, their banners hailing her as “Mother Democracy.”

Even Burma’s toughest critics have been surprised at how many of the promised reforms have already been implemented; in tandem with the upcoming elections, the government has released hundreds of political prisoners, signed ceasefire deals with ethnic rebels, increased media freedoms, and eased censorship laws. Of course the government is primarily motivated by the hope that the reforms will lead to the lifting of economic sanctions, but Western governments and the U.N. have said they will review the sanctions only after seeing how freely and fairly the April polls are carried out. So though Suu Kyi is widely expected to win, it remains to be seen what degree of power—if any—she will actually wield.

And what of the sons that Mother Democracy had to leave behind? Suu Kyi’s older son, Alexander, 38, lives in America and has yet to visit her, but when Kim, now 34, was finally granted a visa to visit the mother he had last seen a decade earlier, he embraced her at the airport before proudly unveiling a brand-new tattoo on his upper arm. It showed a flag and peacock, the symbol of Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy party. And so it is that the wheel of history turns to find Suu Kyi, once the greatest thorn in the military’s side, now perfectly positioned to facilitate a peaceful political transition, just as Mandela did for South Africa. Aung San Suu Kyi’s dream of democracy—a dream shared by 59 million Burmese—might just be about to unfold before our very eyes.