OXFORD - Hardened by decades of political struggle, Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi confronted emotional scars of a different kind on Wednesday when she received an honorary degree from Britain’s Oxford University where she once studied and fell in love.
Smiling gently in a purple robe, she received an honorary doctorate in a solemn ceremony conducted in Latin, collecting in person a degree awarded to her in 1993 when she was still under house arrest.
“Today has been a very moving day for me,” she told a packed audience of dignitaries clad in full academic dress, her quiet voice echoing off the walls of Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre.
“Moving because I found that the past is always there. It never goes away,” she added, speaking beneath a vast ceiling painting depicting the triumph of truth over ignorance.
Before taking up her fight for democracy, Suu Kyi studied at Oxford and settled down in the shadow of its gothic spires and towers in the 1980s with her husband, an English scholar of Tibetan culture, and their two sons.
“In my old college, at St Hugh’s, I could recognize every bit of it, even though there are very many new buildings,” said Suu Kyi, the daughter of Myanmar’s slain independence leader.
“Yet it has merged into the old, in such a harmonious picture of the old and the new, standing together as a promise for the future.”
She said Oxford had taught her to see humankind at its best.
“In Oxford I learned to respect all that is best in human civilization,” she said. “That helped me cope with something that was not quite the best.” She was given a standing ovation.
She left Oxford in 1988 on what she expected to be a short trip to Myanmar but was swept into her country’s political turmoil as the military crushed protests and seized power.
She endured years of separation from her family, refusing to leave Myanmar for fear she would not be able to return, and was unable to witness her sons growing up or to be with her husband Michael Aris when he was diagnosed with cancer. He died in 1999.
“I felt that I was back again, in my young student days. I didn’t feel any different from it. And in a sense I am no different,” she said in a speech during a ceremony which was punctuated by long rumbles of organ music.
“I am strengthened to go forward, to give my very best in meeting the new challenges that lie ahead.”
In a moment certain to have been both joyful and painful, she was reunited with her sons and the rest of the family - some of whom she had never met - in a private reunion during her trip.
Her sons, Alexander and Kim, are now grown men who knew little about their mother beyond the steely facade that has carried her through her tumultuous career.
Hundreds of activists and supporters have gathered in Oxford to catch a glimpse of their icon this week, lining its cobbled alleys, chanting “Welcome back”, and holding flowers.
For many, the emotional ordeal of her homecoming and her personal sacrifice were symbols of awe and admiration.
“She is a legend. She has persevered. (But) she left two young children here. She never saw them grow up. That’s the only thing I can’t accept,” said Karren Kelly, a property developer from Singapore.
“For me personally, that’s too much of a sacrifice.”
Suu Kyi was allowed to travel abroad by Myanmar’s rulers after being released from house arrest in 2010. Speaking to Britain’s BBC television a day earlier, she expressed her resolve to lead her people one day.
She was earlier greeted with a standing ovation at the London School of Economics (LSE).
In her speech at LSE, Suu Kyi thanked the British people for their support and spoke about the importance of the rule of law in Myanmar, which was under military control for 49 years but has surprised the world with a series of democratic reforms.
The military seized power in 1988 as troops crushed pro-democracy protests. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won a 1990 general election, but the generals refused to step down.
On Thursday, she is due back in London to address both houses of Britain’s parliament, a rare honour, as part of a wider tour of European countries.
During a 17-leg European tour, Suu Kyi has been feted by politicians and pop stars and cheered by crowds in Ireland, Switzerland and Norway, where she finally received the Nobel Peace Prize she was awarded in 1991.