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Suu Kyi's journey to global icon: a heart-breaking tale of personal sacrifice

Aung San Suu Kyi donned a cap and gown to receive her Civil Law Doctorate from Oxford University. Author Peter Popham discusses.

She was already an international symbol of the fight against oppression and a unique figurehead for democracy. But, Aung San Suu Kyi -- the woman who took on Myanmar's military rulers armed with little more than the strength of her convictions -- was this week elevated to even higher status.

The end of Suu Kyi’s European tour has officially marked her arrival as a truly global political icon. But behind the smiles and oft-witnessed stoicism that define her public persona is a story of terrible personal loss, a heart-breaking tale of personal sacrifice: Two boys who grew up without their mother and a husband who died of cancer in her absence.


 

Andy Rain / EPA

Aung San Suu Kyi holds her honorary degree Tuesday at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, Britain.

It is part of the narrative that defines Suu Kyi, 67, and made her return to Europe after 24 years away even more poignant and moving.

She is the daughter of national hero Aung San, the man who secured Burma’s independence from British rule in 1947.

He was killed when Suu Kyi was just 2 years old. His death and legacy laid the foundations of her incredible future commitment to her country.

In her early 20s, she studied at Oxford University in England, where she met and fell in love with Michael Aris, the man who would become her husband. It was during this very happy marriage that Suu Kyi got what many have defined as “her calling.”

Suu Kyi: Nobel Prize 'made me real once again'

In March 1988 her two boys, Alexander and Kim, were sleeping upstairs in their home in Oxford while she was reading quietly with Michael when a phone call came that would change their lives and Myanmar's political history forever.

Her mother was sick and needed her.

Suu Kyi packed her bags and flew back to her homeland. On arrival, she found not just a mother who was dying but a country in the midst of great political turmoil. Within months she had buried her mother and taken the lead in the non-violent struggle against a brutal military regime that was slaughtering protesters en masse.  By July 1989, she was placed under house arrest.

Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi addressed the World Economic Forum in Bangkok saying, "we just want to improve the state of Burma" and urged the international community to not be overly optimistic about her country's reform process. NBC's Ian Williams reports.

In the time that followed, Suu Kyi believed she would soon return to Oxford, but the days turned into months, the months into years. In total, she spent 24 years away from her beloved England, either in detention or unable to leave for fear of not being allowed back. She saw her sons only occasionally when the regime allowed them to visit.

Author and Journalist, Peter Popham, who has met Aung San Suu Kyi twice, wrote a biography about her called “The Lady and The Peacock.”

"Neither she nor her husband imagined that it would lead to the destruction of the family," he said. “Michael is on the record as saying he expected the regime to collapse before Christmas."

But many Christmases came and went and the boys turned into men, without their mother’s presence.

Earlier: Large crowds welcome Suu Kyi as she travels Thailand during world tour

A very public reunion took place last November between her and her younger son Kim, by then 33 years old. At the airport in Rangoon she cast a delicate and lonely figure but also a mother like any other desperately awaiting the arrival of her son.

Watching the video footage of it now, it's a very moving moment. Kim turns up and they smile for the cameras; she looks up proudly at her tall, handsome son. It had been 10 years since she had last seen him and she had then never met her grandchildren.

There are many conflicting rumors about her older son, Alexander, who did not attend the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo, Norway, last weekend. Some say he has found it difficult to forgive his mother's absence.

In an ITN interview Tuesday, Suu Kyi had a pragmatic response: “We have never spoken of forgiveness as such,” she said, “but we also have to remember that although my sons may not have had me near them, their position was so much better than that of many young people in Burma.”

For the first time in nearly a quarter century, Myanmar's opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has left her country for a journey overseas, first to Bangkok and later to Europe. NBC's Ian Williams reports.

But what about her? Was she a mother who made a painful sacrifice for her country?

'Stubborn streak'
Popham said that she did not view this as sacrifice but more as a choice with the agreement of her sons and husband. 

"Many people wonder why she has been unable to express her feelings for the loss of her family,” he said, “and they think that maybe this is because she is rather a cold person to whom the family doesn’t mean much, but this is a serious misunderstanding.”

Her “stubborn streak” -- a personal trait she referred to when in London this week -- may have had a big role to play, as may have a certain lightness of being. She keeps a poker face, notable during her trip this week, but it is also interjected with moments of mischief.

All her speeches have been peppered with irreverent references and she was often caught grinning broadly; a sense of humor never seems far away.

Bono, of the band U2, a long-time supporter, told me that she combines charisma with a unique determination.

“She is still inside herself,” he said, “And steely; there is a toughness as well as a tenderness.”

Her Buddhist meditation practice is said to have helped her during her longest and darkest moments, as has her own childhood marked with control, resolve and poise. These were coping mechanisms that got her through the last two decades.

Popham said she was always careful not to reveal what she really thought.

“She was an extremely devoted mother and housewife and the separation for years was certainly something that was never envisaged.” He continued, “She’s never spoken about it, spoken about the pain that she undoubtedly endured because to do so would be a way of telling the military regime your strategy is working. I am suffering.”

When asked this week about the family she left behind, she was as direct and confident in her answer as ever.

"I don't feel good about it,” she said, “but on the other hand I think that in the end one decides what one's priorities are, and one lives with one's decisions."

She’s had a quarter of a century to make peace with those decisions. Her return to the U.K. must have been overwhelmingly bittersweet.

But, long accustomed to being a woman who keeps her feelings private, in Dublin she told me simply that her trip had been “absolutely stupendous.”

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