A private and quiet sacrifice

28 March 1999

Just as Aung San Suu Kyi is Burma's most famous heroine, her husband Michael Aris was one of its heroes.

Michael was not simply the Oxford don who supported his extraordinary wife; he gave his life to the cause of freedom in that suffering country, a sacrifice the people of Burma will, I believe, acknowledge when they are finally rid of their tyrants.

He was a gentle, private, modest man whose own words say much about his bravery. 'It was a quiet evening in Oxford, like many others, the last day of March 1988,' he wrote. 'Our sons were already in bed and we were reading when the telephone rang. Suu picked up the phone to learn than 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 for ever.'

Thus, Michael began his moving introduction to Freedom from Fear, a collection of essays by and about Aung San Suu Kyi. They had met in their student days at Oxford. 'From her early childhood,' he wrote, 'Suu had been deeply preoccupied with the question of what she might do to help her people. She never forgot for a minute that she was the daughter of Burma's national hero? And yet prior to 1988 it had never been her intention to strive for anything quite so momentous?

'Recently I read again the 187 letters she sent me in the eight months before we were married on 1 January 1972. Again and again she expressed her worry that her family and people might misinterpret our marriage and see it as a lessening of her devotion to them.

'She constantly reminded me that one day, should she have to return to Burma, that she counted on my support at that time, not as her due, but as a favour?'

Michael described her departure for Burma as 'a day of reckoning'. He wrote the words quoted above while Aung San Suu Kyi was in her third year of house arrest in Rangoon, an arbitrary sentence imposed by the military dictatorship which lasted, officially, until 1995 but which continues, in one form or another, to the present day.

During that time he and their sons, Alexander and Kim, both in their twenties, have seldom been allowed by the regime to visit her. The last to see her was Kim in September 1997. Michael has not seen her since December 1995.

When she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 while under house arrest, he said: '[I hope] our family's situation will be eased as a result of this supreme gesture of recognition of her moral and physical courage.'

The Burmese Embassy in London responded by informing Michael that his sons' Burmese nationality had been withdrawn and that they were refused visas on their British passports so that they could go to Burma. He was given one Christmas visit.

Later, when I met Aung San Suu Kyi in Rangoon, I caught a glimpse of the sacrifice they shared.

'There were such long times when we were out of touch,' she said. 'Two years and four months was the longest.'

'No letters or anything, either way, during that time?' I asked.

'No.'

'No letters from the children were allowed through?'

'No.'

'That must have been hard for all of you.'

'You do everything you can to adjust?'

'You and Michael had a commitment, but you must have been concerned about the impact it would have on the boys?'

'Oh yes, I worried about them. We both did? my youngest [Kim] had to be sent to boarding school, and he's a very home-loving child? but these things had to be done.'

Without ever saying a word publicly, Michael worked ceaselessly to marshal all help possible for his wife and her imprisoned comrades.

He would dial her number at her house by Inya Lake in Rangoon over and over; then when he finally heard her voice, the line would go dead. Such is the cruelty of the fascists who run Burma.