HER NAME MEANS "A BRIGHT COLLECTION of Strange Victories," and fittingly Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, 46, won last week what may be the brightest and most unexpected triumph of all: the Nobel Peace Prize. Yet she may not even know of the honor. Since July 1989, Suu has been kept under house arrest in Rangoon by the oppressive military regime she seeks to abolish.

The Nobel committee cited Suu's nonviolent quest for democracy as "one of the most extraordinary [recent] examples of civil courage in Asia." Suu carries on the struggle of her father, Aung San, who was killed by a political rival in 1947, just before Burma gained the independence from Britain that he had helped engineer.

An Oxford graduate, Suu remained outside the political fray for many years, living in England with husband Michael Aris, a British professor of Tibetan studies, and their two sons. Returning to Burma in 1988 to nurse her dying mother, Suu joined the growing protest movement, stirring crowds with her inspiring oratory until she was arrested for criticizing military leader Ne Win.

In Rangoon, Suu's neighbors reportedly used to hear her playing the piano; when the music stopped last year, some concluded she had sold the piano to buy food. Currently a visiting professor at Harvard, Aris, who has not seen his wife since Christmas 1989, says, "The joy and pride which I and our children feel at this moment is marked by sadness and continuing apprehension."

Unheard and unseen, Suu remains a powerful symbol. Last June a birthday card for her was signed by more than 1,000 people around the world. Its message:

Like the candles
On this birthday cake
The bars of repression
Will one day burn down
And set free your dream of democracy.