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Michael Aris, Myanmar Activist's Husband, Dies

Obituary: Military government had refused to let cancer-stricken Briton visit his Nobelist wife, who has been under house arrest for 10 years.

March 28, 1999|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Michael Aris, the husband of Myanmar opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, has died.

Aris died of prostate cancer at a hospital in Oxford, England, on Saturday, his 53rd birthday. Just weeks ago the government of Myanmar, formerly called Burma, rejected his request to visit his wife in his final days. He had not seen her for more than three years.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 31, 1999 Home Edition Part A Page 18 Metro Desk 2 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Myanmar dissident--Due to incomplete information in an obituary of Michael Aris in Sunday's Times, a headline incorrectly stated that his wife, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, has been under house arrest in Myanmar for 10 years. In fact, Suu Kyi was under house arrest from 1989 to 1995.

Suu Kyi, 52, was with friends and diplomats in Yangon, Myanmar's capital, when she learned of Aris' death. One diplomat, who spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity, said she took the news calmly.

"On behalf of my sons, Alexander and Kim, as well as on my own behalf," Suu Kyi said in a brief statement, "I want to thank all those around the world who have supported my husband during his illness and have given me and my family love and sympathy."

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright sent "heartfelt condolences" to Aris' family. She said he had "sacrificed the companionship of his beloved wife for 10 years so that she could stand with her people in Burma to struggle for human rights and democracy."

The United States "deeply regretted" Myanmar's rejection of the appeals of Western governments and international human rights groups that Aris be allowed to visit his wife, Albright said in Washington. "The authorities' callous disregard of the most basic humanitarian principles," she added, "is emblematic of the continuing repression in Burma."

Suu Kyi refused to leave Myanmar to visit her husband during his illness for fear the military government would not allow her to return. A Myanmar military envoy who visited her Friday and offered a "guarantee" that she could return after the trip to Britain said she declined.

The envoy's account was confirmed by members of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy.

In an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp. when Aris was seriously ill, Suu Kyi said Myanmar's authoritarian regime had pressured her into the decision not to visit her husband. "Our people face it all the time," she told the BBC. "We draw strength from each other and . . . our inner conviction that what we are doing is for the future of many others besides ourselves."

As outspoken and dynamic as Suu Kyi is, Michael Vaillancourt Aris was a different sort. A Times reporter who interviewed him in 1991 recalled him as a rumpled, academic man who looked to be straight out of central casting. For most of his life, he was apolitical, a scholar who ignored the daily ups and downs of the world's news. His academic credentials in his chosen field were substantial. He earned his doctorate in Tibetan literature in 1978 from the University of London. From 1967 to 1973, he was the private tutor to the royal family of Bhutan and headed the translation department for Bhutan's government.

Aung San Suu Kyi (pronounced Ahn-Sahn-Sue-Chee) is the daughter of Gen. Aung San, who helped Burma win independence from Britain in 1945. Two years later, he was assassinated. His daughter was just 2.

Suu Kyi lived the life of a diplomat's child, moving with her mother to posts in Nepal, India and later, the United Nations.

She met Aris, who later recalled being "swept away by her beauty," at an Oxford party in 1966. She was researching her country's political history at Oxford, where she received a degree. They married in 1972 and lived briefly in Bhutan, where Suu Kyi worked for the ministry of foreign affairs. She later did research in Southeast Asian studies in Japan. On their return to England, she devoted much of her energy to raising the couple's two sons, now in their 20s.

However, in a 1971 letter to the man who would become her husband, Suu Kyi seemed to anticipate that destiny might one day take her back to Myanmar.

"I only ask one thing, that should my people need me, you would help me do my duty by them. . . . Sometimes I am beset by fears that circumstances and national considerations might tear us apart just when we are so happy in each other that separation would be a torment."

In 1988, that prediction came true when she returned to Myanmar to nurse her ailing mother, who died later that year. She became an outspoken critic of the military government that shot thousands of dissidents, and was a founding member of the National League for Democracy, which quickly became the leading opposition party.

When the military government decided she had become a threat, she was placed under house arrest without charge in July 1989. She quickly began a hunger strike to obtain better treatment for her imprisoned political supporters.

Though she was in detention, her party won a huge victory in the national parliamentary election of May 1990, with about 80% of the vote. But the ruling junta refused to hand over power until a new constitution had been agreed upon. That has still not happened.

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