When Mynamar opposition activist Aung San Suu Kyi made the choice to stay under house arrest in 1989 rather than return to her family in Oxford, she made a personal sacrifice that would leave a legacy of pain within her personal life.
This is the intimate insight given by Aung San Suu Kyi: The Choice, the 2012 documentary about the dissident leader shown last night at Meta House.
Directed by German Mark Eberle and Angus McQueen from England, the film offers a rare glimpse into Suu Kyi’s personal life — and an unflinching assessment of the 21 years of consequences of her lonely choice.
The daughter of General Aung San, the man who brought independence to Myanmar in 1947, Suu Kyi studied at Oxford in the 1960s. There, she married Englishman Dr Michael Aris and had two sons.
When her mother suffered a heart attack in 1988, she was called back to Myanmar, a trip that coincided with demonstrations for democracy in Yangon. As her father’s daughter, she became the prominent figure and face of the movement.
She remained in the country and was detained as a political prisoner in 1989, after rejecting an offer by the military junta to leave and never come back.
It is at that point — when Suu Kyi chooses to stay — that Eberle and McQueen pick up the story. Through a series of interviews conducted in 2011, including one with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who praises Suu Kyi move into politics, the film-makers compile an intimate portrait of the housewife who became a national leader.
The beginning of Suu Kyi’s political activism meant a diminishing role in the lives of her children and husband.
In an extended interview, she admits her sadness, but says she doesn’t regret the decision. The emotional turmoil it caused her children, however, is evident.
In one scene from 1995, Suu Kyi is reunited with her sons. A press photographer arranges the shot: Suu Kyi hugging her son Kim and patting his head. Once it is taken, Kim flees the scene.
In an interview for The Choice in 2011, he is a different man. In his early 30s, divorced with two children of his own, he says his father did not get enough credit for raising him and his brother Alexander while their mother was away. Overwhelmed with emotion, he leaves the scene.
Kim visited his mother in Yangon in 2011. A video shot at the airport shows him urging his mother to travel and spend time with him, in front of many cameras. “Mummy... you have no excuses,” he says.
According to Eberle, the other son lives in a religious community in Chicago and doesn’t visit his mother, though he is said to phone her regularly.
Family friend and Tibetan scholar Dr Peter Carey Oxford, interviewed for the film, goes so far as to attribute the death of their father in part to the hardships he endured while separated from Suu Kyi.
Aris died from cancer in 1999. Suu Kyi didn’t come to his sick bed or his funeral – a decision he supported. If she had left the country, she could never have returned.
Political leaders tend to shy away from justifying what they do on a personal level. After all that they accomplish on the global stage, it seems irrelevant.
In The Choice, Eberle and McQueen do a remarkable job of dismantling the shroud.
What is left is a woman with a dilemma – and a family changed by the pain her choice has left behind.
To contact the reporter on this story: Julius Thiemann at [email protected]