There can have been few greater burdens borne by such slight and delicate shoulders.
In the tsunami of adoration which has greeted Aung San Suu Kyi on her return to Europe, she cuts the fleeting figure of a rare songbird whose cage door has swung open.
She speaks softly, correctly, a quizzical inclination of the head.
No wonder she has long proved the perfect foil to Burma’s gruesome military muscle – no wonder so many of her new found parliamentary colleagues – and not least her President – must have more than their feathers ruffled as they take in the spectacle of her hero status on the global stage.
When we arrive at her old college in Oxford this afternoon, the air crackled with expectation. One student told me that her ties to St Hugh’s – her alma mater – where she met her husband and raised their children – are part of the fabric of everyday life in the college. The junior common room is named after her. There is row upon row of awards kept safely in her absence. And sweetly the undergraduates have sent her birthday cards every year of her incarceration.
Today she returned after twenty four long years.
We met in the principal’s office overlooking the sunlit lawn – her long mauve skirt brushing the floor lightly.
She looks tired, and says her hearing is ‘not quite right’ after so many hours in the air – and blinks as if to check if she really is back after all this time.
But when asked about the challenges Burma still faces – she is quick-sharp. No she won’t tell those in exile to return; it has to be for them to decide. Yes the ethnic violence besetting her country needs to be addressed, but the path must always be reconciliation. And she’s keen to underscore her warning against reckless optimism.
Her pace softens though as she listens to questions about the family life she chose to shut out when she left for Burma. It wasn’t her sacrifice, she explains – nor her husband ‘because he was an adult’ – but for her sons, yes. ‘I don’t feel good about that’ she admits, pausing.
It’s a sad moment of introspection from a woman most of us would struggle ever to find at fault. If insight were needed into the heartache of the silent hours of Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest, this is surely it.