Hidden torment of the steel butterfly: How Aung San Suu Kyi faces a cruel twist no mother should ever have to endure
Claudia Joseph and Elizabeth Sanderson
21:06 GMT, 14 April 2012
22:09 GMT, 14 April 2012
For Aung San Suu Kyi it must have been a deeply significant moment. On Friday, at her lakeside villa in Rangoon, the pro-democracy leader, wearing her customary flower in her hair, shook hands with David Cameron, the first serving British Prime Minister to visit Burma since it gained independence from the UK in 1948.
The meeting was loaded with huge political importance – offering hope that the country might at last be freed from the grip of its military generals. But more pertinent to Ms Suu Kyi was the invitation to visit Downing Street this summer.
Only a few years ago such an invitation would have been unthinkable, and it marks not only the chance of a new beginning for Burma but also the end of a heart-breakingly solitary journey for Ms Suu Kyi that began 65 years ago.
Fulfilling her destiny: Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi voting in Burma earlier this month
Aung San Suu Kyi with her sons Alexander (left) and Kim (right) in Rangoon in the 1980s
In January 1947, her father, General Aung San, travelled from Burma to London to meet the then Prime Minister Clement Attlee, to sign the Aung San-Attlee agreement that would pave the way for Burmese independence.
The deal would make Aung San a national hero but at an appalling cost. His rivals assassinated him five months later in July 1947. In 1962 the country fell to a military dictatorship that his daughter, only two at the time of his death, would spend her life fighting.
She would be forced to give up her husband, leave her two sons, and in the cruellest twist of all, she would have to live with the guilt of what this abandonment would to them.
This was the legacy her father left her and it is something Ms Suu Kyi, now 66, has always accepted as her destiny, never once complaining of the personal sacrifices she has made.
Her stoicism comes, in part, from the tragic death of her younger brother Lin, who drowned in a lake in the grounds of the family home in Rangoon when she was seven.
Lin had been her favourite playmate so she was forced to confront from an early age the terrible nature of loss, which would become a hallmark of her life.
Mr Cameron walks with Ms Suu Kyi after inviting her to visit Downing Street in June
After four years in Delhi – where her mother, Daw Khin Kyi, was Burma's ambassador to India – Ms Suu Kyi moved to Oxford to study politics, philosophy and economics at St Hugh's.
Here she met her husband Michael Aris, a renowned expert on Tibet.
The couple married in 1972 and had two sons, Alexander, who is now 39, and Kim, 35.
Ms Suu Kyi, known as Suu to her friends, could have lived out her life in England as a traditional don's housewife, raising their children. But she chose a very different future after returning to Burma in 1989 to care for her dying mother.
Historic: Prime Minister David Cameron meets pro democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi at her Lakeside Villa in Rangoon, Burma
The two leaders share a light moment during their meeting in the compound of her lakeside home on Friday
Mr Cameron was on a five-day trade mission to Burma, the first British Prime Minister to visit the country since 1948
At Rangoon General Hospital, Suu found wards overflowing with students who had been wounded by the military in a series of protests against the regime.
She made her decision: she stayed in her homeland, helping to set up the National League for Democracy (NLD) and so fulfilling her duty to her father and country.
She famously spent 15 of the next 22 years under house arrest, becoming a powerful advocate for freedom and democracy. She was known as the 'Steel Butterfly', and the world was only too aware of all she had given up.
She could not visit her family and they were regularly refused visas to visit her. When Michael died of cancer in 1999, he and Suu had not seen each other for four years.
But behind that very public sacrifice lay another, deeper torment – the devastating effect her actions have had on her two sons.
Suu has never spoken about Alex and Kim but a new documentary, Aung San Suu Kyi: Lady Of No Fear, hints that they have struggled to cope with their mother's absence from their lives.
Mr Cameron walks with Ms Suu Kyi after inviting her to visit Downing Street in June
In the film, the historian Peter Carey – a friend of Michael Aris – says that as young adults the children suffered 'emotional turmoil' and grew up 'baffled' by their mother's calling.
'It was very tough for them. If your mother dies you can come to terms with that. But if you can see your mother and hear her being talked about but you cannot reach her, it's like Persephone in the Underworld.'
The boys were just 16 and 11 when their mother left, effectively turning Michael into a single parent. Although he was a loving father, even his friends admit he was not cut out for this.
Speaking to The Mail on Sunday, Carey said: 'He was a real scholar. There was a practical side to Michael but it wasn't a natural default mode to play football with the children.'
Over the years, the walls of the family's Oxford home slowly filled up with all the certificates and prizes Suu won – including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.
A huge portrait of her hung in Michael's bedroom and the book Suu had been reading when she received the phone call summoning her to Burma to care for her mother was always prominently on display.
Yet these reminders must have made the pain of her absence even harder.
Max Horsley, who was a schoolfriend of Kim when they were at The Dragon School, Oxford, told The Mail on Sunday: 'The pain Kim suffered at growing up without his mother was heartbreaking to see.
'I remember he would try to telephone her every night after school, although sometimes he couldn't get through or would be cut off, probably deliberately by the regime.
'He was just a little boy who didn't understand why his mother couldn't be with him or why he couldn't be with her. It was very difficult for him to take in. He would beg her, “Please come home Mum. We miss you terribly. Why aren't you here” The separation reduced him to tears.'
It was an agonising moral quandary. To meet her duty as a daughter she would have to forsake her obligations as a mother.
Last week Mr Horsley, who works for a travel company in Rangoon, added: 'I think the sense of guilt she suffered at being separated from her children was appalling. It was sheer agony. The dilemma of country over family had a profound effect on her as well as on her children.'
Mr Horsley said that he had been to Suu's house to catch up with Kim whenever he had been allowed to visit.
Warm reception: Mr Cameron talks to students at The University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus today. He praised the country's 'model of democracy'
He said: 'There was hardly any furniture in it and it was in very poor condition. There was no money for renovation and it was slowly falling into disrepair: I can remember a piano with half of the keys broken.
'Once, when we were there, she clutched his arm as they sat together. She just wouldn't let it go. It was as if she feared that if she let go of his arm he would walk out and she would never see him again. There was really anguish there.
'I like Kim – he is a super chap and I'm proud to call him my friend – but like any young man he liked to have a good time. Sometimes we would go out on the town and have a few drinks. His mother didn't really approve. I think she sort of took against me because she thought I led him astray.'
Suu could have left Burma at any time, indeed the junta wanted her to go, but there is no evidence to suggest she ever contemplated it.
Burma's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi (centre) waves to the crowd after her recent election victory. Mr Cameron called her an 'inspirational woman'
To his credit, there is nothing to suggest that Michael ever asked her to return, even though he only saw her five times in ten years.
The last time he and Suu met was in 1995 when he and the boys were allowed to see her while she was under house arrest.
By then Kim was 18 and had grown into a young man. She later admitted she could have passed him in the street and not known who he was.
It was the last time they would ever be together as a family. Three years later Michael was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
He made more than 30 applications to visit her. All were refused. He was finally granted a visa on the day he died.
Heartbreakingly, a farewell film she recorded for Michael at the British Embassy, which was smuggled out of the country, arrived two days after he died.
But she asked her sons to gather flowers from the meadows on her behalf to put on his memorial.
has now made a life in America, where he studied philosophy at
university before joining a Buddhist commune of meditation practitioners
in Portland, Oregon.
'I think the sense of guilt she suffered
at being separated from her children was appalling. It was sheer agony.
The dilemma of country over family had a profound effect on her as well
as on her children'
He is a practitioner of the ancient Chinese meditation therapy Qigong, and recently wrote about the comfort his beliefs give him and the 'great and unnecessary burden' he had been carrying in his life.
Explaining the way each therapy session works he wrote: 'We discuss my current emotional state as well as emotional pain from the past … each time discussing these issues and receiving therapy I have experienced a new found sense of relief and confidence in facing up to and approaching these situations.'
Alex last saw his mother shortly after his father's death and has, to all intents and purposes, retreated from the world.
He is a vegan, rides a bicycle, has no fridge and cooks on a wood- burning stove. He collects twigs and scrap timber for fuel and handwashes his clothes. To celebrate his 39th birthday last Thursday, Alex's friends cooked a special Buddhist feast at his four-bedroom, two-storey Twenties Craftsman-style home where he lives with three fellow Buddhists.
His closest friend is a Japanese-American scholar, known only as Tomo. Last week Tomo said: 'I have recently been to Burma and I was so happy to meet Alex's mother after hearing so much about her.
'She was particularly interested to talk to me and hear all about what Alex is up to. They speak quite often but she was still very happy to meet with me and hear it first-hand.
'I believe Alex is very proud of his mother but he prefers to lead a quiet life and not speak publicly about her. He has not seen his mother for some time and I don't know of any plans he has to visit her.'
Kim has found it more difficult to find contentment.
As a teenager he turned to alcohol. He married but is now separated from his wife Rachel Jefferies, and he has lost custody of his children James, 12, and ten-year-old Jasmine. Rachel now lives in the Costa Blanca resort of Torrevieja.
She told The Mail on Sunday: 'I don't want to say anything because I don't want to upset the family. They have always decided not to talk about Suu to ensure her safety. James has met her and I'm hoping to take Jasmine to meet her after the election.'
Kim now lives in Burma with his mother.
Mr Carey said: 'Kim has reconnected with his mother. They are pretty close now and he seems really happy to be around her.'
He also seems to have taken up her plight and has a tattoo of the NLD emblem on his arm – a flag and a fighting peacock.
To lose her sons completely would have been an enormous sacrifice. But now, at least, Suu has Kim fighting by her side and the first positive signs of real change for her country in a generation.
So, if she accepts the invitation to Downing Street in June, retracing the steps of her beloved father, she will have finally fulfilled her duty as a daughter.
One can only hope she may be allowed to resume her duties as a mother, too.
* Aung San Suu Kyi: Lady Of No Fear is showing at the Apollo cinema in Piccadilly Circus at 3pm today during the International Buddhist Film Festival.