AUNG SAN SUU KYI AND HER FAMILY DURING HER TIME IN MYANMAR
In 1988, after spending most of her life abroad, Aung San Suu Kyi—then a 43-year-old housewife, researcher and mother of two—returned to Burma to take care of her mother who had suffered a stroke. at a time when pro-democracy demonstrations were occurring all over the country. On December 27, 1988, Daw Khin Kyi—Aung San Suu Kyi’s mother died.
On her departure to Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi’s husband Michael Aris wrote in Freedom from Fear . "It was a quiet evening in Oxford, like many others, the last day of March 1988. Our sons were already in bed and we were reading when the telephone rang. Suu picked up the phone to learn that her mother had suffered a severe stroke. She put the phone down and at once started to pack. I had a premonition that our lives would change forever."
Aris’s friend Marcus Einfeld said: “When Suu Flew out of London to be with her dying mother in April 1988, Michael Aris had a premonition that their lives were about to change dramatically. He later labeled that moment "a day of reckoning". But nothing could have prepared him for the cataclysmic events that were about to unfold and the turmoil that would consume their family. He was a gentle, private, modest man whose own words say much about his bravery. While Aris was shocked at the speed with which his wife was drafted to the leadership of the Burmese democracy movement, the prospect that she would eventually be drawn to the struggle had been acknowledged from the earliest day of their relationship. In the foreword to the essays to which I have referred, he quoted from one of her early letters to him.” [Source: Justice Marcus Einfeld, an Australia judge and UNICEF official, from a speech at Michael Aris’s funeral]
Aung San Suu Kyi and Her Family While She Was Under House Arrest
Aung San Suu Kyi saw her husband five times between 1989 and 1995. The last one was for Christmas in 1995. When asked about how often she saw her husband she told the Washington Post: "He came for Christmas, but last year he was refused a visa for the Easter holidays. So he comes if he gets a visit." Aris' visit in Christmas 1995 turned out to be the last time that he and Suu Kyi met, as Suu Kyi remained in Burma and the Burmese dictatorship denied him any further entry visas.
Aung San Suu Kyi was also separated from two sons, who lived in the United Kingdom during her long captivity. Both sons were repeatedly denied visas to Myanmar until 2011. Aung San Suu Kyi has said that she is that missed important years with her children. Aris spent time accepting honorary degrees on her behalf and delivering messages that she had smuggled out of the country.
Kenneth Denby wrote in The Australian, “In her seven years of most recent detention, she revealed that she was allowed to receive only one letter each from her two sons, Alexander and Kim. In Ms Suu Kyi's front room stands a drum kit and a pair of out-of-tune electric guitars - reminders of Kim, now 33, who played them on his last visit more than 10 years ago. Since the weekend, she has spoken to her sons every day but is no closer to seeing them. Today Kim is in Thailand, waiting for a Burmese visa that will almost certainly not be given. [Source: Kenneth Denby, The Australian, November 20, 2010 <>]
"I was speaking to Kim just about a couple of hours ago," she says. "I was telling him on the phone that these guitars don't work any more so he said he'd have to buy one. He was telling me that he went to the Burmese embassy to ask (about a visa) and they said that they knew nothing about it, which I thought was a little silly." <>
Michael Aris While Aung San Suu Kyi Was In Myanmar
Rebecca Frayn wrote in The Telegraph, “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. [Source: Rebecca Frayn, The Telegraph, December 11, 2011 ++]
“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. ++
“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. ++
“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 color, 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. ++
Aris’ friend Justice Marcus Einfeld said: “His determination to avoid personal publicity was sometimes misinterpreted as remoteness and indifference to her and the cause to which she was so selflessly devoting herself. In fact it disguised an intensive life of behind-the-scenes activism and support for Suu Kyi and her struggle. He once estimated that 80 percent of his time was spent working for the cause, much of it travelling the world representing her at ceremonial events and meetings with government and community leaders. In 1997 he made seven international trips to collect honorary degrees awarded to her; in 1998 there were a similar number. He also played a key role, backed by the USA and Australia, in the appointment by the U.N. of a special envoy to press the case for change in Burma. [Source: Justice Marcus Einfeld, an Australia judge and UNICEF official, from a speech at Michael Aris’s funeral ^]
“Suu Kyi has of course continued to struggle against the intransigent brutal regime in her country, while her husband waited to be reunited with a wife who had become not only the embodiment of Burma's struggle for democracy, but also an international symbol of non-violent resistance. Her extraordinary capacity to withstand the relentless psychological warfare and physical deprivations mounted against her by a crude and threatening regime left him in awe, even after 26 years of marriage. When Michael knew he was dying, he applied again for a visa and was refused. Of course she could have flown to him except that had Suu Kyi left Rangoon, she would not have been able to return and continue the struggle for the freedom of her people, for whom she is a beacon. Can anyone imagine the torture of such a dilemma? ^
Aung San Suu Kyi and Her Family While She Was Under House Arrest
Aris was allowed to visit Aung San Suu Kyi in Rangoon in Christmas 1995. That visit it turned out would be the last time Aris and Aung San Suu Kyi would see each other. "It seems', he wrote, "that the authorities had hoped I would try to persuade her to leave with me. In fact, knowing the strength of Suu's determination, I had not even thought of doing this ... The days I spent alone with her that last time, completely isolated from the world, are among my happiest memories..."
Rebecca Frayn wrote in The Telegraph, “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. [Source: Rebecca Frayn, The Telegraph, December 11, 2011 ++]
“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. ++
Death of Michael Aris, Aung San Suu Kyi’s Husband
On March 27 1999, Aung San Suu Kyi’s husband, Michael Aris, died of cancer in London. He had petitioned the Burmese authorities to allow him to visit Aung San Suu Kyi one last time, but they had rejected his request. He had not seen her since a Christmas visit in 1995. The government always urged Aung San Suu Kyi to join her family abroad, but she knew that she would not be allowed to return to Burma.
Aris died from prostrate cancer. The government denied him a visa on the ground it didn't have the medical facilities to take care of him. At that time Aung San Suu Kyi was temporarily free from house arrest but was unwilling to depart, fearing that she would be refused re-entry if she left, as she did not trust the military junta's assurance that she could return.
More than 1,000 people gathered at Aung San Suu Kyi house to take part in a religious ceremony honoring her husband. She appeared in a white suit without the orchids and flowers she usually wears in her hair. In a statement Aung San Suu Kyi said: "On behalf of behead of my sons Alexander and Kim, as well as on my own behalf, I want to thank all those around the world who have supported my husband during his illness and have given me and family love an sympathy. I have been fortunate to have such a wonderful husband who has always given me the understanding I needed."
Aris was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997 which was later found to be terminal. Among those that appealed for him being given a visa were U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and Pope John Paul. Aris’s funeral was held at Oxford Crematorium. A wooden box containing his ashes are housed at Kagyu Samye Ling Buddhist Tibetan Center in rural Dumfriesshire at the end of a walkway lined with Tibetan prayer wheels. Next to the box is picture of Michael Aris and Aung San Suu Kyi,
At Aris’ funeral his friend Justice Marcus Einfeld said: “It was more than three years before his death that they last saw each other. And they had not even been able to speak since early 1998, when the erratic phone line to the old house by Rangoon's Inya Lake was cut permanently. He would dial her number at her house again and again, and when finally he heard her voice, the line would go dead. Michael's and Suu's sons have seldom been allowed by the regime to visit her. The last to see her was Kim in September 1997. Such is the cruelty of the fascists who run Burma. [Source: Justice Marcus Einfeld, an Australia judge and UNICEF official, from a speech at Michael Aris’s funeral ^]
Aung San Suu Kyi Reunited with Her Son after 10 Years
In November 2010, Associated Press reported: “Burma's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was reunited today with a son she last saw a decade ago, in an emotional meeting at the Yangon airport 10 days after she was released from detention. Kim Aris, 33, was granted a visa by the military regime after waiting for several weeks in Thailand. Just before walking into the terminal, Aung San Suu Kyi, who was released on 13 November after more than seven years under house arrest, told reporters: "I am very happy." She slipped her arm around her son's waist as the two posed briefly for photographers. [Source: Associated Press, November 23, 2010]
Through her lawyer, Nyan Win, Aung San Suu Kyi thanked the authorities for issuing the visa to her son, who resides in the UK and last saw his mother in December 2000. The ruling junta had repeatedly refused to grant him a visa. The leader of the National League for Democracy admitted that her years of political work had been difficult for her family. "I knew there would be problems," she said of her decision to go into politics. "If you make the choice you have to be prepared to accept the consequences." Aung San Suu Kyi has never met her two grandchildren.
While her family supported her, she said her sons had suffered particularly badly. "They haven't done very well after the breakup of the family, especially after their father died, because Michael was a very good father," she said. "Once he was no longer there, things were not as easy as they might have been." She added that she always had their support: "My sons are very good to me," she said. "They've been very kind and understanding."
Aung San Suu Kyi’s Children in 2012
As of 2012, Kim lived on a houseboat moored on the Thames in Oxford. He married and became a carpenter in Oxford but split from his wife Rachel Jeffries who lives in Portugal with their children. Aung San Suu Kyi met them during a visit to Yangon. Kim visited his mother twice between 2010 and 2012. One of the visits was ten days after her release. She described the reunion as “very easy, as though we had never been apart.” He gave her, what one friend described as “the love of her life”—a mutt named Thai Chi Toe.
Aung San Suu Kyi is in close contact relatives on her husband’s side, including Aris’s sister and twin brother, and their children and grandchildren. She was also reportedly very close with Aris’s mother, Evelyn Aris. She died in 2009. [Source: Fay Schlesinger, The Times, April 2012]
Her elder son Alexander lives in the United States. He reportedly had no plans to visit his mother when she visited England. He turned 37 in 2012 and has been described in the press as troubled by his mother’s choosing politics over family. He and Kim generally decline to be interviewed by the press.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2014