Memories of Myanmar: a story of exile


In September 1994, I was preparing to travel to Myanmar for the first time and went to see Michael Aris, Aung San Suu Kyi’s husband, at his home in Oxford. When he opened the door, he stood for a moment peering at me, then ushered me into the living room, where Tibetan scrolls and Bhutanese rugs hung from the fading walls. A Burmese nun came in and Michael asked her to bring tea. 

I was 22, just out of university, and prattled on about my plans to visit my mother’s family in Yangon and then travel up to Mandalay and beyond into Shan state. Michael was a research fellow in Tibetan and Himalayan studies at St Antony’s College, and seemed to have adopted the rugged calm of a Buddhist monk. He took deep drags on his cigarette, waiting until the very last moment before tapping his ash into an ashtray. 

Unknown to me and the wider world at that time, he had quietly become the focal point for the diplomatic efforts regarding Aung San Suu Kyi. Six years earlier, she had returned to Myanmar to see her dying mother and been swept up in the country’s democracy movement. Her father, Bogyoke Aung San, had led what was then Burma to independence from Britain, only to be assassinated shortly afterwards. Despite having lived abroad for many years, Aung San Suu Kyi made a natural figurehead who turned out to be a formidable opponent to Myanmar’s entrenched military regime. 

Between 1989 and 2010, she would spend nearly 15 years in detention, mostly under house arrest. Then, when Myanmar began a process of political reform, she was allowed to lead her party, the National League for Democracy, to victory in parliamentary elections in 2012. Her sacrifice appeared to have yielded its just reward.

Aung San Suu Kyi with a photo of her father Bogyoke Aung San © Steve McCurry/Magnum Photos

In the first few years of her detention, Michael collected prizes for her, including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, but was loath to be seen as anything more than a concerned husband. He was rightly worried about goading the profoundly xenophobic Burmese generals. But from his small attic office, he was in constant contact with officials around the world, chivvying them to do something about Myanmar. He and their two sons were allowed to visit Aung San Suu Kyi from time to time in Yangon, until 1995 when the government stopped them. Michael died of cancer in 1999, at the age of 53.

A few years later, I went to see his twin brother, Anthony, who showed me boxes of correspondence between Michael and Aung San Suu Kyi. The letters were sweet and banal, as they had to be since Aung San Suu Kyi’s guards would have read them, containing requests for make-up and workout videos. Anthony also showed me a longyi (an ankle-length wraparound garment) on which Aung San Suu Kyi had written a speech, which one of her sons had then worn out of Myanmar. They were artefacts of a marriage and a family life which had been given up for a political mission. Almost every story of exile has these elements, the minute, the pathetic, the intimate, crushed by a brutal force of ideology, politics or greed. In some, there is resolution or catharsis, a return of sorts. But not all.

In March 1962, the military staged its first coup under Ne Win, who ruled Burma as a socialist state for the next 26 years. The story my family tells is that one day they were having breakfast when a tank rolled down Inya Road, parked in front of their house and turned its gun slowly towards them. Then the household servants, encouraged by Ne Win’s socialist ideology, emerged from the garden and kitchen and sat down at the family table and began helping themselves to food. 

Burmese army vehicles move into the streets, 1962
Burmese army vehicles move into the streets, 1962 © AP

Six years later, my grandparents left with two of their three children, planning to join the third, my uncle Ronald, in America. Their family’s businesses had been nationalised, their homes seized, relatives arrested and abused in jail. Their crime was not just to have been wealthy in the emerging socialist state but to be part of Yangon’s ethnically mixed commercial community, who were resented by the majority Burmans.

My grandfather’s father was a Bengali Sunni who came to Yangon from Chittagong, the port city in what was then East Pakistan and is now Bangladesh, and built a business as a contractor for the British colonial government and supplying the ships that passed along the Irrawaddy. My grandmother’s mother was a Burmese Christian from Mawlamyine in the south who married a French customs official.

When my grandparents left, they stopped to catch their breath in Chittagong. My mother met my father, an English missionary who was in charge of the Anglican church. They moved to Dacca, and I was born there a few months after the end of the Bangladesh war of independence. We moved to England a couple of years later, but my grandparents, aunt and uncle stuck with their plan of moving to Washington DC. 

Wherever the dispersion took my family in the years that followed — to Washington, San Francisco, London, Oslo, Perth and, in my case, Northampton — they talked about that house on Inya Road. They imagined walking back in one day to find the teak floors polished, the fruit trees flowering in the garden and their cousins playing beside the lake. Their grandmother, Daw Ma Ma, would be sitting cross-legged on top of a raised platform, producing rolls of cash from beneath a cushion as she did business. 

Her Frenchman had died when she was 38, leaving her with nine children to raise. She moved from Mawlamyine to Yangon, bought a projector and began showing movies on bedsheets strung up between poles. Eventually she owned cinemas, became a distributor of Hollywood films and produced her own. She was the source of energy at the heart of her world, but died before the 1962 coup, spared seeing what she built fall apart, the family scattered, her businesses stolen, the house she had taken such pride in slowly rotting away.

Of those in my family who stayed, some thrived on dealing with the dictatorship, others crumpled into addiction and poverty. Among those who left, some never got over it and others moved on, embracing exile and their new lives. But their experiences stripped away any romance I might have had about Myanmar. What I inherited from my family was a partial identity and a seething nostalgia for a place that kept slipping away.

At school in England, no one quite knew how to racially taunt someone from Myanmar, so I was a chink, a slope, a gook, Agent Orange, Charlie. Today, I live in the US and the reminders come from the constant demands to state one’s racial identity. I still hesitate before checking any particular box, whether it’s to get a vaccine or a bank loan. 

Myanmar is half of me. But what kept me interested was never my blood, but the thwarted passions among the people closest to me. I would see them dress for the west by day, and once they came home go back to being Burmese. I would listen to them grasping at their disappearing past, wishing some version of it might lie in their future. But over time, an exile that seemed temporary and pragmatic at first hardened into an unwanted permanence. The boats that might have taken them home were burnt against their will.

Transitions from tyranny to democracy can take time — years, often — when it seems at any moment the barrack doors might swing open and the tanks roll out. General Franco died in 1975, but Spain’s democracy wobbled for several years, including an attempted coup in 1981, before taking root. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela devoted his presidency primarily to reconciliation, knowing that any programme of reform would be worthless if the white minority became disaffected and left or withdrew all their capital.

I thought of Michael Aris and that longyi in recent years as Aung San Suu Kyi became Myanmar’s de facto leader in 2016 and worked with the military she had spent so many years opposing to try to lead Myanmar towards democracy. Now immersed in day-to-day politics, she appeared to fall short of the impossible expectations she had raised over her years of house arrest. Worst of all, she was accused of not standing up to the generals when they began systematically persecuting the Rohingya Muslim minority of Rakhine state in 2017. 

A picture of Philip Delves Broughton’s family’s former home in Yangon, taken in 2012
A picture of Philip Delves Broughton’s family’s former home in Yangon, taken in 2012 © Philip Delves Broughton

Philip Delves Broughton’s grandmother, uncle, mother and aunt in Myanmar, 1968
Philip Delves Broughton’s grandmother, uncle, mother and aunt in Myanmar, 1968 © Philip Delves Broughton

As the army killed, raped and razed, hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas fled across the border to Bangladesh. But Aung San Suu Kyi seemed indifferent, more committed to sustaining her relations with the army than standing up for the persecuted. She denied it was a genocide and blamed a “huge iceberg of misinformation”. The Dalai Lama urged her to speak out. Irish musician and activist Bob Geldof called her a “pig” and a “handmaiden to genocide”. How could such a symbol of virtue, a champion of human rights, be so indifferent to suffering?

In Myanmar, however, Aung San Suu Kyi remained enormously popular. People appreciated her courage and the difficulty of what she was trying to do. Last November, her party trounced the military’s candidates in parliamentary elections. 

But on February 1, hours before the new government was to be sworn in, the army’s leaders ended the country’s 10-year experiment with democracy. The military declared the election results invalid and arrested the leaders of the ruling National League for Democracy, including Aung San Suu Kyi. 

Myanmar citizens living in Thailand make the three-finger pro-democracy salute during a protest in February demanding the release of Aung San Suu Kyi
Myanmar citizens living in Thailand make the three-finger pro-democracy salute during a protest in February demanding the release of Aung San Suu Kyi © Zuma Press/eyevine

The scattershot charges against her include breaking Covid-19 rules and the official secrets act, and owning military grade walkie-talkies, which carry years of potential prison sentences. She was not seen again until May 24, when she appeared for a brief court hearing in Naypyidaw. One of her lawyers said she was being held in an undisclosed location, cut off entirely from the world.

The military government claims its coup is a one-year project to re-establish stability, after which parliamentary democracy will be restored. But they are now facing a tenacious guerrilla-style opposition. The economy is in near collapse and many fear it could become a narco state, run in the interests of the heroin and methamphetamine traffickers who operate with few limits across the borders of Myanmar, Laos, China and Thailand.

Companies that stampeded into Myanmar after 2011 hoping to participate in the next Asian tiger economy are pulling out. Even Myanmar’s friends, such as China, are concerned about their investments.

Demonstrators in a car sing protest songs as they pass a police truck
Demonstrators in a car sing protest songs as they pass a police truck © Panos Pictures

When Aung San Suu Kyi refused to criticise the military even at their worst, she was widely condemned in the outside world. But I would argue she was also trying to keep Myanmar’s experiment in democracy going, to keep the barracks doors closed. She made hard compromises for what she hoped would be the greater good, as she had done for most of her adult life. And now her story again looks like one of failure, and Myanmar’s one of looping sadness.

During her many years of house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi survived on ferocious discipline, meditation, exercise and piano practice. Her presence forced change. But how do you survive an exile that has no prospect of ending?

My uncle Ronald, Win Win Ko, was the first of my immediate family to leave Myanmar. He had fallen in love with a girl at high school in Yangon, and his mother decided it would be better for him to leave the relationship and attend university in America. He worked for the General Accounting Office and then the US Senate as an investigator and loved America in the way only immigrants can. He took on the environmentally destructive mining companies of West Virginia, and would travel around these small towns, a pigeon-toed Burmese warrior for the benighted Appalachians.

He liked big American cars and Hank Williams and Elvis. He didn’t drink, but he loved bars and the women who tended them. He received death threats for his work, kept a gun in his glove box and a light with a siren, which he could put on the roof of his car and race through Washington DC. 

If Ronald thrived, my grandmother, Sylvia, Daw Aye Myint, did not. She opened a shop in Washington that sold hippie versions of Asian clothing and sat behind the cash register in her silk blouse and longyi smoking one cigarette after another. Even as a six-year-old, sitting on the floor beside her, I could tell she hated it. She tried. She watched Bozo the Clown with me on television and took me to Roy Rogers for hamburgers. But in Myanmar, she had run her own film production company and a trading company. In America, she felt lost and demeaned and she died at 59.

My grandfather, Michael, U Ni, lived until he was 94. The last time I saw him, in 2015, he was in a pine coffin, wrapped in a cotton shroud, at the Prince George’s Muslim Association, just outside Washington. As a younger man, Michael had worked in Myanmar’s postwar government as head of a business council and was always beautifully dressed. By the time I knew him, he had adopted an extreme simplicity in every aspect of his life. The bespoke suits and Burmese silk jackets had been replaced by worn fleece shirts and longyis. He cooked the same meals day after day, rice and dal and chicken curry, which he ate with his fingers, standing at the kitchen counter. He worked for years on a novel about a love affair between a Burmese man and an American woman and, five times a day, he put on a skull cap, clutched a set of sandalwood beads and said his prayers, reading from one of his several Korans.

After he died, I went to his bedroom to look through his books. Next to his Korans was a well-thumbed copy of The Darqawi Way, a collection of letters by a Sufi sheikh to his followers. He had repeatedly highlighted passages dealing with the “annihilation” of the self, the abandonment of the sensory. Leaving Myanmar at 50, losing Sylvia and then Ronald, who died of cancer in his early forties, Michael had not just withdrawn into himself as some act of ascetic indulgence. He had purposefully slashed away at a self and a connection to the past that he felt had done him no favours.

Michael Aris, the British husband of Aung San Suu Kyi
Michael Aris, the British husband of Aung San Suu Kyi © Camera Press

At Michael Aris’s memorial service in the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, his son Kim read a translation of the Vedic poem, “Salutation to the Dawn”. “Look to this day!” it begins. “For it is life, the very life of life.” It is a poem about living for the moment: “For yesterday is but a dream, and tomorrow is only a vision.” When I first heard it, it sounded like so much yoga class optimism. But perhaps if you are trapped between a past you would rather let go and a future you feel foolish to imagine, it is the only serious mechanism for survival.

More on Myanmar

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The country is caught in a confrontation between the junta and a pro-democracy campaign

Myanmar coup blindsides the west

Diplomats discounted warning signs and thought military was concentrating on Covid

Philip Delves Broughton is the author of ‘What They Teach You at Harvard Business School’ (Penguin, 2010)

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