The horrified young bodyguards screamed for the slender woman they were escorting through the Burmese night to make a break for it. Hundreds of angry assailants were swarming her motorcade of democracy activists, smashing her truck’s window and jabbing sharpened bamboo sticks inside.
But the beloved leader of Burma’s democracy movement — Aung San Suu Kyi, affectionately called “Aunty” — refused to budge that day, May 30, on what has become known as Black Friday.
The mob, recruited by Burma’s military regime, dragged off Suu Kyi’s elderly deputy. They jerked women out of the trucks, stripping several naked and bashing one’s head on the road. Scores of activists, maybe more than 100, were killed or injured.
“They are killing our mother!” the activists shouted, referring again to Suu Kyi.
“She refused to run,” recalls Wunna Maung, a 26-year-old bodyguard. Her driver finally floored the gas pedal and rocketed them out of the fray.
But Suu Kyi was captured less than two miles away. For almost four months, she was held incommunicado in an undisclosed location. She was returned home Sept. 26, to house arrest yet again — she has spent almost eight of the last 14 years detained.
The international community demands her freedom. The United States has imposed economic sanctions on Burma. This petite, fragile-looking 58-year-old woman with blossoms woven in her hair, a “prettier version of Mahatma Gandhi,” one friend calls her, has become the sole repository for the Burmese people’s hopes.
She chose this burden, this unimaginable weight. She once had a comfortable intellectual life in Europe, but a remarkable confluence of events, of people, led her back to a harder path.
A Name and a Destiny
Perhaps he knew it would make a difference. In Burma, where parents almost never name their children after themselves, Gen. Aung San, the country’s founding father, broke with all tradition. Not only did he name his first two sons after himself, Aung San Oo and Aung San Lin, he gave his name to his only daughter. Aung San is a muscular name, one that means victory.
To add softness and balance, he drew from his mother’s name, Suu, and from his wife’s name, Kyi. Strung together like pearls, the name, Aung San Suu Kyi (pronounced “Ong Sahn Soo Chee”), is an unusual name, meaning a bright collection of strange victories.
The child was aware of the weight of her name, even a bit embarrassed by its length and masculine sound. But as she grew, she would become ever more aware of the power of her name, and the destiny it carried.
There is a striking reverse symmetry in the lives of the father and the daughter. The youngest of six children, Gen. Aung San was born of rural gentry, and though late to speak and with an awkward, even prickly, personality, he grew into a student leader and committed nationalist. Even as a child, he dreamed of driving the British out of his country, colonized in the 19th century. He would go on to form the Burma Independence Army, to become one of the legendary Thirty Comrades trained secretly by the Japanese. They reentered Burma with the Japanese invasion to oust the British in early 1942, then turned around in March 1945 and helped the British end Japanese occupation.
But this grand hero’s service to the Burmese people was cut sorrowfully short: A jealous rival had him gunned down in 1947 — just six months before Burma declared its independence. He was only 32.
Suu Kyi was 2.
As she grew, the daughter, whose brisk gestures, direct speech and bright eyes made her a “female replica” of the general, would become obsessed with knowing more about the father she had lost. When she was a young mother, living in Oxford, England, she’d occasionally meet former British colonials who had served in Burma at the end of the war. Did they know Gen. Aung San? What was he like? What did he look like? “One of them said, ‘He did look a little like Yul Brynner,’ which she liked quite a lot,” recalled Peter Carey, a close friend and a Southeast Asia historian at Oxford. “I think she always had this incredible sort of daughter’s hero worship for her father, considering the father he was.”
As fate would have it, she would pick up where he left off decades later, when she was 43, forming a party, the National League for Democracy, with two of his former comrades in arms.
During her long, often lonely struggle, she has said, “I always think, ‘I may be alone, but I know I have your backing.’ ”
A Time of Uncertainty
Though she would have preferred literature or forestry, Suu Kyi was accepted into a program of philosophy, politics and economics at St. Hugh’s College in Oxford. It was the mid-’60s. In Burma, a military coup had just begun an era of repressive rule. On the British campus, wearing the traditional Burmese lungi, or sarong, Suu Kyi stood out for her exotic beauty and her unwavering morals. She once told amused college mates that she would never sleep with anyone except her husband, preferring to “just go to bed hugging my pillow,” recalled former classmate Ann Pasternak Slater.
“Oh, you must come and see this remarkable Burmese woman at St. Hugh’s!” Anthony Aris exclaimed to his twin brother, Michael Aris, a Tibetan scholar at the University of Durham in northern England.
Michael was smitten, but Suu Kyi had “no ideas about being taken by anybody at that time,” recalled Ma Than E, a family friend whom Suu Kyi likes to call her “emergency aunt.”
After college and a spell in London, Suu Kyi moved to New York in 1969 to work at the United Nations as staff for an advisory budget committee. She shared a 17th-floor sublet overlooking the East River with Ma Than E, who worked at the U.N. Secretariat.
It was then that Michael Aris’s courtship began in earnest, by correspondence. He was by now in Bhutan, serving as tutor to the royal family. He wanted to marry her. Suu Kyi wrote him 187 letters, at times expressing a worry that her family and country might misconstrue their marriage as a weakening of her bond to them. She made clear that one day she might have to return to Burma.
“I only ask one thing,” she wrote in one letter, “that should my people need me, you would help me to do my duty by them.”
He promised he would support her, should she be called to serve. They married at a mutual friend’s London home on New Year’s Day 1972. After a time in Bhutan, they returned to England. Two sons followed: Alexander and Kim, named after the hero of the Kipling tale.
The family moved to Oxford when Michael became a research fellow at St. John’s College. As her sons grew, she began to devote more time to her own passion, Asian literature. But a deep curiosity about her roots grew, turning into a focused effort to research her father and her country’s history. She decided to write a biography of her father. In 1985, she spent a year in Kyoto, and in 1987, a year in New Delhi, doing research.
As Carey saw it, she was in search of a role. Michael was a dedicated scholar of Tibet. “She hadn’t yet found her true calling,” Carey said. “It was a time of uncertainty.”
She wanted a higher level of achievement for both herself and her husband, recalled Pasternak Slater. “I think that created a certain amount of anxiety in her,” said Pasternak Slater. “There was a restlessness in her life.”
One thing not on her mind, at least overtly, was a career in Burmese politics.
Fate intervened on March 31, 1988, with a phone call from Rangoon to Oxford. Her mother, Daw Khin Kyi, had suffered a severe stroke. Suu Kyi put the phone down and began to pack. “I had a premonition,” Michael wrote in the introduction to a collection of essays about his wife, “that our lives would change forever.”
A Life-Changing Speech
By the time she arrived in Rangoon, there was already an electricity in the air. The students had taken to the streets, and in one incident, 41 wounded students suffocated in a police van.
Michael and the boys joined Suu Kyi that summer at her mother’s home, a weathered villa on Inya Lake. The family sat transfixed before the television on July 23. Gen. Ne Win announced that he was resigning and that a referendum on the country’s political future would be held. Suu Kyi, like the country, was elated. Here, at last, was the people’s chance to take control of their destiny.
“I think it was at this moment more than any other that Suu made up her mind to step forward,” Michael wrote in the introduction to “Freedom from Fear.”
At 8:08 a.m. on Aug. 8, 1988 — known as the “Four Eights,” or 8/8/88, a date the Burmese had chosen for its numerological significance — a nationwide pro-democracy strike was called. Hundreds of thousands of students, civil servants and monks poured into the streets, ecstatic with the prospect of an end to one-party rule. Around midnight, President Sein Lwin ordered troops to fire.
In the aftermath, Suu Kyi wrote an open letter to the government, proposing a committee be formed to take the country toward multiparty elections. Then she wrote a speech that was to propel her onto the political stage.
By midday on Aug. 26, a sea of people had flooded the slope beneath the Shwedagon Pagoda, whose golden cup and spire tower over Rangoon. Suu Kyi stood on a stage at the pagoda’s base. People climbed trees to snatch a glimpse of Aung San’s daughter.
Despite rumors of an assassination attempt, she refused to wear a bulletproof vest. Fellow activist Nyo Ohn Myint drove Michael to the pagoda. It would be the first time his wife would give such a public speech.
“Revered monks and people! This public rally is aimed at informing the whole world of the will of the people,” she began. “. . . Our purpose is to show that the entire people entertain the keenest desire for a multiparty democratic system of government.”
She called the national crisis, in the speech’s most memorable phrase, “the second struggle for national independence.”
The crowd, 100,000 strong, roared.
Amid the jubilation, Nyo Ohn Myint noticed Michael, standing to the side. He was clearly proud, but he also wore a look, the activist recalled, “kind of like, I’m going to lose my wife and my privacy and my family.”
On the drive back, people in the car were “amazed, excited.” Michael was silent, lost in thought.
The army cracked down again, killing thousands. On Sept. 18, martial law was declared. The ruling military junta named itself the State Law and Order Restoration Council, which birthed the beast-evoking acronym SLORC (in 1997, on the advice of a public relations firm, it would rename itself the State Peace and Development Council, or SPDC).
The democracy activists formed their party, the National League for Democracy. Suu Kyi became general secretary and U Tin Oo — the elderly deputy — eventually chairman. They began to campaign for the promised national elections.
Suu Kyi’s mother died that December. She was 75. More than 100,000 people watched her funeral procession. Suu Kyi, who had learned stoicism and strict control over emotions from her, soldiered on.
In April 1989, Suu Kyi and a group of NLD activists set off on a campaign trip along the Irrawaddy River, stopping at villages along the way. On the second day, they alighted from their boat and began the short walk to the party office in the town of Danubyu.
Suddenly, soldiers blocked their way. Kneeling, six or seven soldiers pointed automatic rifles at them: Stop!
“Keep moving,” Suu Kyi told her group, recalled Nyo Ohn Myint. He tried to get in front of Suu Kyi to protect her. “No,” she said, holding him back. “You don’t need to. It makes them more nervous.”
Calmly, the 5-foot-3 Suu Kyi spoke out to the soldiers: Let us pass. We have no other road.
Just then, a major rushed up and, rebuking the captain, made the soldiers stand down.
“I was scared to death,” recalled Nyo Ohn Myint.
Later that evening, they held a meeting at the party office, where he recalled that she told party comrades, if she were killed, they should use that opportunity “to win democracy and freedom for the country.”
Her exploit spread by word-of-mouth. For the Burmese, long cowed by the military regime, it vaulted her to iconic status.
Years of House Arrest
The more the people seemed to exalt Suu Kyi, the more the military seemed to fear her.
The party chairman’s son, Thant Zin Oo, drove to Suu Kyi’s house the morning of July 20, 1989. Like his father’s, it was surrounded by soldiers. He had disturbing news. The soldiers had barred his father from leaving home. They had cut the phone lines.
Suu packed a small bag and arranged for a friend to care for the boys. That afternoon, soldiers barged into the compound. They seized 40 NLD members, trucking them off to the notorious Insein (pronounced “insane”) Prison.
At 4 p.m. a military official arrived and read a detention order to Suu Kyi. Kim, then 11, asked his mother if she were being taken away. She explained she was going to be locked up in the compound. They carted off boxes of documents.
Michael, who had been in Scotland for his father’s funeral, hurried to Rangoon to find his wife on Day 3 of a hunger strike, demanding that she be taken to prison to be with her colleagues. For 12 days she accepted only water, losing 12 pounds, falling below 100 pounds. She relented when a military officer assured her that the activists would be treated humanely.
Thus began six years of house arrest — it wouldn’t be her last — during which Michael was allowed only two visits. He became a single father in what Carey calls “bachelor digs” in Oxford. “It was jolly difficult,” Carey says. “The warm heart of the Aris household” was no longer there.
In the beginning, separation from her family depressed her, she has said, but any pain or longing “simply became part of my daily life.” She maintained a strict regimen: Up by half past 4. An hour of meditation. An hour and a half of radio, BBC, Voice of America, the Democratic Voice of Burma. She exercised on a NordicTrack treadmill. She read extensively, savoring volumes by Rabindranath Tagore, Nehru, Jane Austen. Cleaning, sewing. In bed by 9.
She made a point of dressing nicely every morning, putting jasmine in her hair. A housemaid relayed her doings to the authorities. “That was very dispiriting for them,” recalled a friend. “They were expecting her to be bedraggled and unnerved. She never gave them the opportunity.”
In the 1990 elections, the NLD won a landslide victory, capturing 82 percent of the seats. The regime, stunned, argued that absent a new constitution, it could not convene the parliament. Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize the next year, while she was still under strict house arrest.
She was freed on July 10, 1995, determined to pick up where she had left off. But she was rarely allowed to travel outside Rangoon. When she did, military intelligence would tail her. If she went to a restaurant, she would hear later that it had been shut down. So she rarely ventured into public.
But the public came to her.
Every Saturday afternoon, at 4 sharp, she would mount a wooden riser behind the iron gate at her house, holding a notepad, her eyes bright. Hundreds of people would flock to the gate. Buses would roll slowly past, with folks hanging out of windows to catch a glimpse. Nodding and smiling, she would speak for exactly one hour, discussing education or democracy.
Every week offered a teachable moment. Once, she proudly told of how a woman, bolstered by her talks, went to cash a check, and when the bank clerk began to deduct a fee for a calendar issued by the military, she protested. “But I did not request a calendar.” The clerk insisted. The woman stood her ground. Taken aback, the clerk cashed the check in full.
Suu Kyi cited that tiny moment as a victory in the struggle toward democracy. “The idea,” says a British friend who lived in Rangoon, “is that if they could resist in some small way, and not bring down punishment on their families, that they would know in their hearts they’d resisted.”
The Penalty of Separation
The price Suu Kyi paid for her choice continued to mount.
She attempted to travel outside Rangoon, and each time was forced back after standoffs with the military. On one occasion in 1998, she spent 11 days in a minibus. She stopped drinking to avoid having to urinate in public, then was manhandled by the military and forced home, bruised and dehydrated.
“Look at me, I’m over 50,” she said to a friend at one point. “At this age, I should be leading a quiet life. But then I think of Mandela. The poor man’s 80 and he’s still working.”
The government tried to undermine Suu Kyi with posters suggesting crude sexual behavior or that she was anti-Buddhist. Their accusations followed a theme, observed one journalist: “You’re married to a foreigner. You’ve got Western ideas in your mind. You’re not really one of us.”
The next January, Michael rang Peter Carey. “I’ve got two pieces of news, one good, one bad,” he said. “I’ve got cancer. But I’m going to beat it.” The prostate cancer was advanced. He kept hoping he would get into Burma to see “my Suu,” Carey recalls. The government kept refusing his visas. He had not seen her since 1996.
She knew that if she left to be with him, the regime would never let her return. Coming to terms with that reality took prayer and the deep faith of a lifelong Buddhist. It was an intensely difficult time. It seems her choice had always been made — “my country first,” she told “Dateline NBC” in 2000. But it was not an easy choice.
Still, she refused to cast the price paid as a sacrifice. “If you choose to do something, then you shouldn’t say it’s a sacrifice, because nobody forced you to do it.”
Michael died on March 27, 1999. Toward the end of his life, when he was in the hospital, she would try to speak with him every evening. Because her phone line was cut, she arranged to await his call at the home of a diplomat. Military intelligence soon figured it out. One evening, Michael and Suu had just said hello when the line went dead. In a rare moment of utter despair, she burst into tears.
A Day of Freedom
Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest again in September 2000, and not released until 19 months later.
She was rallying a crowd of 20,000 in western Burma one day last December, when suddenly authorities turned a fire hose on the crowd. In the panic, Suu Kyi climbed on the firetruck and exhorted the people to stay. She lashed out at the security forces, telling them their job was not to bully the people but to serve them. The people stayed.
A friend urged her to tell that story earlier this year when Al Neuharth, president of the Freedom Forum, traveled to Burma to give her an award for her nonviolent struggle for democracy.
“No, I don’t want to complain,” she said.
“You have to complain,” the friend replied.
“It’s not about me,” she protested.
The friend left thinking, “But it’s so about you.”
Last December, Suu Kyi was feeling optimistic. She was buoyed particularly by a trip to Shan State, home of a large ethnic minority, because there, the NLD, quite on its own, had been active, helping mothers get milk for their babies, villagers fill out government forms. “There was this sense that the party was a party for the whole country,” recalled the British friend.
Then came the May 30 ambush. More than 100 companions, including her 76-year-old deputy, are still detained from that one night.
Today, democracy seems no nearer in Southeast Asia’s hermit country.
Though it has been 14 years since he last saw her, Nyo Ohn Myint can still remember the day, because it was so rare, when the entourage took a break from campaigning. They went to rling people into the water. Suu Kyi just walked on the beach, lifting the hem of her sarong as she trod on the sand.
Aunty, come join us! The boys shouted.
She demurred. But she let the spray soak her. She was laughing. She looked so free.