Full text of the address given by
The Honourable Justice Marcus Einfeld AO QC,
at the memorial service for
DR Michael Aris
At the Ashfield Uniting Church, 180 Liverpool Road, Ashfield on Sunday, 18 April 1999.
Michael Aris died of cancer on his 53rd birthday. He was born on 27 March 1946, in Havana, Cuba and educated at Worth School, Sussex from where he went on to read modern history at Durham University. After completing his BA in 1967, he spent seven years working as a private tutor to the royal family of Bhutan and was also the head of the Bhutanese government's Translation Department. He met Suu Kyi while they were both students at Oxford University in the 1960s. She had come to Britain from India where her mother had been Burmese Ambassador.
They married on 1 January 1972, after which they shared many trips and periods of residence in the Himalayas including Bhutan, Nepal, Ladakh, Arunachal Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh. They had two sons, Alexander and Kim, both now in their twenties.
In 1974, Aris began his post-graduate studies in the School of Oriental and African Studies of London University in Tibetan literature in which he subsequently took a Ph.D. at Oxford. He became a research fellow at several colleges of Oxford University after his graduation, supervising graduate students on the other side of the Atlantic as well when he became a visiting professor of Tibetan and Himalayan studies at Harvard University between 1990 and 1992. Upon his return to Oxford, he rejoined the Asian Studies Centre of St Antony's College as a senior research fellow - the position he held at his death.
His many lectures and wide range of articles on subjects within his area of expertise won him worldwide recognition for his academic excellence in the culture and political history of Tibet and the Buddhist Himalayas.
These are the dry facts of his personal and intellectual life for which he is widely respected. But he is loved and revered for something else.
Michael and Aung San Suu Kyi shared a cause and a life - yet they did not live together for more than a decade. It was more than three years before his death that they last saw each other. And they had not even been able to speak since early 1998, when the erratic phone line to the old house by Rangoon's Inya Lake was cut permanently. He would dial her number at her house again and again, and when finally he heard her voice, the line would go dead. Michael's and Suu's sons have seldom been allowed by the regime to visit her. The last to see her was Kim in September 1997. Such is the cruelty of the fascists who run Burma.
When Suu Flew out of London to be with her dying mother in April 1988, Michael Aris had a premonition that their lives were about to change dramatically. He later labeled that moment "a day of reckoning". But nothing could have prepared him for the cataclysmic events that were about to unfold and the turmoil that would consume their family. He was a gentle, private, modest man whose own words say much about his bravery:
"It was a quiet evening in Oxford, like many others, the last day of March 1988", he once wrote. "Our sons were already in bed and we were reading when the telephone rang. Suu picked up the phone to learn that her mother had suffered a severe stroke. She put the phone down and at once started to pack. I had a premonition that our lives would change forever."
Thus Michael began his moving introduction to Freedom from Fear, a 1995 collection of essays by and about Aung San Suu Kyi.
"From her early childhood", he wrote, "Suu had been deeply preoccupied with the question of what she might do to help her people. She never forgot for a minute that she was the daughter of Burma's national hero ... And yet, prior to 1988, it had never been her intention to strive for anything quite so momentous...
"Recently I read again", he wrote, "the 187 letters she sent me in the eight months before we were married.... Again and again she expressed her worry that her family and people might misinterpret our marriage and see it as a lessening of her devotion to them. She constantly reminded me that one day she would have to return to Burma, that she counted on my support at that time, not as her due, but as a favour..."
Within weeks of her return to Burma from England, Suu, although at the time a home-based mother of 2 young sons, was drawn into a maelstrom of popular unrest fuelled by 25 years of corrupt and incompetent military rule. As the daughter of the hero of Burmese independence who was assassinated when she was two, she became a rallying point for a new student-led democracy uprising.
After months of confrontation, the army launched a crackdown in which thousands were killed. By July 1989, Suu Kyi was under house arrest, not to be released for another six years. Even now, 4 years further on, her so-called "release" is nothing but a cruel hoax. Upon her so-called "release", Michael's visa to visit her was withdrawn.
But the power of the woman and her cause could not be silenced. In an election the military called, in the belief that they would win or manufacture a clear victory the following year, her party, the National League for Democracy, won a landslide result, capturing more than 80 per cent of the vote - a result which the military still refuses to acknowledge.
While Aris was shocked at the speed with which his wife was drafted to the leadership of the Burmese democracy movement, the prospect that she would eventually be drawn to the struggle had been acknowledged from the earliest day of their relationship. In the foreword to the essays to which I have referred, he quoted from one of her early letters to him:
"I only ask one thing", she wrote, "that should my people need me, you would help me to do my duty by them....".
She went on:
"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. And yet such fears are so futile and inconsequential: if we love and cherish each other as much as we can while we can, I am sure love and compassion will triumph...."
The strength of their bonds was also evident in the brief but moving address Michael gave at Melbourne University just a few years ago after accepting "on behalf of my brave wife Suu" an honorary degree of doctorate of laws:
"As the one who claims to know her best and love her most, I need hardly tell you what it means to me to see her properly recognised in this way."
Relentlessly savaged by the Burmese regime for speaking out, Aris was understandably anxious to avoid any unnecessary controversy that might compromise the strategies of his wife in pursuing the campaign for democracy and place her in even greater danger. But when he did speak, he did not shy away from the reality of the ever-increasing repression in Burma and the constant pressure against his wife by the regime:
"Every day of the week in Burma's official media," he once said, "Suu is vilified, calumnied, slandered, taunted, ridiculed and insulted. In the cowardly way adopted by soldiers who have lost their sense of honour and dignity she has no right of reply".
What he described as "the turgid sewers of official abuse" were regularly directed at ridiculing Suu Kyi's decision to marry a European, in the most lurid and racist way. She was portrayed in the official media as a prostitute and traitor to her nationality, and their two sons derided as illegitimate. Pornographic drawings of Suu Kyi with white men were circulated in Rangoon, clearly with the approval of the junta. Aris rightly saw such personal assaults as merely reinforcing the great gulf in moral authority between Suu Kyi and the discredited generals.
His determination to avoid personal publicity was sometimes misinterpreted as remoteness and indifference to her and the cause to which she was so selflessly devoting herself. In fact it disguised an intensive life of behind-the-scenes activism and support for Suu Kyi and her struggle. He once estimated that 80 percent of his time was spent working for the cause, much of it travelling the world representing her at ceremonial events and meetings with government and community leaders. In 1997 he made seven international trips to collect honorary degrees awarded to her; in 1998 there were a similar number. He also played a key role, backed by the USA and Australia, in the appointment by the UN of a special envoy to press the case for change in Burma.
When she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 while under house arrest, Michael said:
"I was informed today that my dear wife Suu has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize ... It is my earnest hope and prayer that the Peace Prize will somehow lead to what she has always strived for - a process of dialogue aimed at achieving lasting peace in her country. Selfishly, I also hope our family's situation will be eased as a result of this supreme gesture of recognition for her moral and physical courage, and that we may at last be allowed to pay her visits again. We miss her very much."
The Burmese Embassy in London responded by informing Dr. Aris that his sons' Burmese nationality had been withdrawn, and that they were refused visas on their British passports. He was given one Christmas visit.
"It seems', he wrote, "that the authorities had hoped I would try to persuade her to leave with me. In fact, knowing the strength of Suu's determination, I had not even thought of doing this ... The days I spent alone with her that last time, completely isolated from the world, are among my happiest memories..."
Suu Kyi has of course continued to struggle against the intransigent brutal regime in her country, while her husband waited to be reunited with a wife who had become not only the embodiment of Burma's struggle for democracy, but also an international symbol of non-violent resistance. Her extraordinary capacity to withstand the relentless psychological warfare and physical deprivations mounted against her by a crude and threatening regime left him in awe, even after 26 years of marriage.
When Michael knew he was dying, he applied again for a visa and was refused. Of course she could have flown to him except that had Suu Kyi left Rangoon, she would not have been able to return and continue the struggle for the freedom of her people, for whom she is a beacon. Can anyone imagine the torture of such a dilemma?
To his dying day Dr. Aris was convinced, as I have always been and am today more than ever, that a return to democracy in Burma is inevitable. Certainly, when this occurs, the Burmese people should not hesitate to celebrate and pay tribute to the unswerving courage and commitment of Dr. Michael Aris.
As a practical contribution to his memory, I am delighted to announce tonight that at the request of Prime Minister Sein Win and his Burmese government in exile - the legitimate elected government of Burma - an independent corporation of Australian Judges and lawyers which I chair called the Australian Legal Resources International, which supplies legal infrastructure and democratic capacity building to developing countries and emerging democracies, is now hard at work writing the Transition to Government of the democratic forces of Burma. This is a major project designed to advance and assist the return of Burma to democracy and the rescue of its people from fascism. We dedicate this project tonight to the memory of Michael Aris.
I call upon all Australians and good people everywhere to get behind efforts to win the freedom of the Burmese people from the yoke of oppression and suppression. Time is of the essence. It is my belief that at this very moment Suu Kyi is in mortal danger. We must protest loudly and often to protect her and ensure her safety. Her democratic colleagues are also at grave risk. We must speak out in their name now before it is too late. We must bolster and support the forces of social democracy; we must tirelessly strive for the establishment of a constitutional order based on human decency and justice; and we must call on all the genius and ingenuity we regularly use in other fields to ensure that our voices are heard.
We cry out to the people of Burma - be strong and steadfast. Stand straight and proud. We are with you in your struggle to be free. This battle will be won. The SLORC can and will be beaten. The Burmese people can and will be set free.
Every Australian, indeed every decent human being, must do whatever is necessary to help them bring it about. We can do no greater honour and homage to the contribution and sacrifices made by Michael Aris to this sacred cause. We must do no less to honour his name and his memory.