London. When Aung San Suu Kyi visits Britain this week it will be a painful reminder of the hardest part of her struggle — the two decades the Myanmar opposition icon spent separated from her sons.
Suu Kyi will attend a family reunion in Britain to mark her 67th birthday on Tuesday, with reports that her children Alexander and Kim will both attend.
But behind that joyful occasion will be the shadow of the cruel choice she had to make in 1988: follow her duty in Myanmar, or stay in Britain with her English husband Michael Aris and their boys.
The Nobel Laureate chose Myanmar and spent most of the next 22 years under house arrest, refusing to leave even when Aris was dying from cancer because she feared the junta would not let her return.
Her younger son Kim, who is now 35 and lives in Britain, has visited her a number of times since she was freed from house arrest in November, and was with her when she delivered her long-delayed Nobel Peace Prize speech on Saturday.
But Alexander, who is 39, lives in the United States, and has yet to see his mother.
“I hope it will not be tinged with sadness,” she told the BBC when asked about her visit to Britain.
“I’m looking forward to it, very simply. I want to see old friends again and to rediscover old places where I’ve been happy.”
The family have said almost nothing about the trauma of those years apart.
Peter Popham, a journalist with the Independent newspaper whose biography of Suu Kyi “The Lady and the Peacock” was published last year, said she had unfairly been depicted as “dry” because she had largely refused to speak about her anguish.
“The self-control she has is legendary. She regarded it as a test of will, really, not to expose her suffering at all to anybody,” Popham told AFP.
He said she also had a “very sound political reason” for keeping it close to her chest: the Myanmar regime would have used it as a way of trying to make her leave the country.
“Refusing to issue visas to her husband, revoking the children’s passports, basically keeping the family apart for years and years was part of their strategy for forcing her out,” he said.
“It’s not hard to imagine what it must have meant to her to be separated… for year after year after year in complete isolation,” added Popham, who has met Suu Kyi twice.
Perhaps the most poignant stop of her time in England will be when she accepts an honorary doctorate at Oxford, where she studied and then later lived with her family before her return to Myanmar in 1988.
Suu Kyi studied politics, philosophy and economics at St Hugh’s College, Oxford and it was there that she met Michael Aris, a tall and imposing Englishman who was an expert on Tibet.
They married in 1972 and she lived a housewife’s life raising their children in the leafy suburbs of north Oxford, where she was known to friends as just “Suu.”
But everything changed when she returned to Myanmar in March 1988 to care for her dying mother.
While she was there the country’s military rulers launched a brutal crackdown on protesters and — echoing her independence hero father Aung San — she took on the mantle of political leadership and decided to stay.
During the long 22 years that followed, most of it under arrest in her lakeside house, she would only see her husband and children around five times.
“As a mother… the greater sacrifice was giving up my sons,” she told Alan Clements, a former Buddhist monk to whom she gave a series of interviews.
But then she added: “I was always aware of the fact that others had sacrificed more than me.”
In 1999, Michael Aris, who had tirelessly campaigned on her behalf even while caring for her sons, found out that he was dying of prostate cancer but he told Suu Kyi that she should not come back, otherwise the junta would win.
The effect on their children of his death, compounded by her absence, is something that only they know.
Kim still spends much of his time in Oxford, friends say, adding that he prefers to stay out of the spotlight.
His mother was in tears when they were first reunited after a decade without seeing each other — and he revealed the symbols of her then-disbanded National League for Democracy (NLD) party tattooed on his arm.
Alexander currently lives in the United States but he has not been to Myanmar since his mother’s release.
“The thing that is interesting about him is that it was him who gave the speech in Oslo during the Nobel Prize ceremony” in 1991, when the boys accepted the peace prize on her behalf, Popham said.
“He gave a really wonderful speech, everybody was really impressed. So he is a clever lad but exactly what he is doing, like Kim, he has never gone on the record about.”
Historian Peter Carey, a friend of Michael Aris, said in the documentary “Aung San Suu Kyi: Lady of No Fear” that the children had been through “emotional turmoil”.
“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.”