Aung San Suu Kyi has told how happy memories of life at Oxford University had sustained her years under house arrest in Burma.

Thoughts of sunny days spent reading on the lawn, and day-dreaming out of a library window had helped her to cope with the many challenges she had to face, the pro-democracy campaigner said.

Suu Kyi read philosophy, politics and economics (PPE) at St Hugh's College, Oxford, between 1964 and 1967, and spent much of the 1980s living in the city with her husband, Tibetan scholar Michael Aris and their two sons, Kim and Alexander.

On Wednesday, she returned to the city for the first time in decades to receive an advanced degree in civil law.

Speaking at the prestigious annual Encaenia ceremony, she said: "Today, many strands of my life have come together.

"The years I spent as a student at St Hughs, the years I spent at Park Town as a wife and mother, and the years I spent under house arrest, when the University of Oxford stood up and spoke up for me.

"During the most difficult years, I was upheld by memories of Oxford.

"Those were among the most important inner resources that helped me to cope with all the challenges I had to face."

Many of the memories were simple ones, she said, such as "summer days like these, reading on the lawn at St Hugh's" and "being in the library not looking at a book but out of the window".

"But those were very good memories as I had lived a happy life," she said.

"It helped me to understand the people of Burma, who wanted to live a happy life and had never been given the opportunity to live one."

Suu Kyi yesterday met with students at her former college, saying she "saw herself again as a young student, carefree, happy, nice".

And she also told how the novels of fellow honoree, David Cornwell, known as John le Carre, had been a lifeline during her detention.

"They were a journey into the wider world, not just to other countries, but thoughts and ideas," the Burmese opposition leader said.

She received a two-minute standing ovation at the end of her 15 minute speech.

Suu Kyi said she was "proud" to be back at her old college, and "warmed by the reception given to me".

"I felt that I was back again in my young student days, I didn't feel any different from then.

"I didn't feel any different to the student I was before.

"But I am different, because I've had to face different experiences," she added.

"I bring all those experiences back with me to Oxford and I find Oxford is big enough and broad enough to contain my new experiences as well."

Speaking without notes, Suu Kyi said that throughout her years struggling for human rights in Burma she had felt she was "doing something of which my old university would have approved".

"Feeling their approval behind me helped me greatly," she said.

She told the congregation that today had been "very moving" for her.

"Moving because I have found the past is always there, it never goes away.

"But you can select what's best from the past to help you go forward in the future."

She added: "The road ahead is not going to be easy, but Oxford I know expects the best of its own, and today because they have recognised me as its very own I am strengthened to go forward and give my very best in meeting the new challenges that lie ahead."

Earlier in the ceremony, Ms Suu Kyi, who was referred to by the honorific title Daw Suu, had been praised for her "patience and endurance" during her 24 years under house arrest in Burma.

Oxford's Public Orator, Professor Richard Jenkyns of Lady Margaret Hall, said that while her return to Oxford was a public event, it was not forgotten that Ms Suu Kyi was also returning to her old home and "a city full of memories".

Giving the oration in Latin as she received her degree, Prof Jenkyns paid tribute to Ms Suu Kyi, saying that her presence at the university "speaks more eloquently than any language".

"This we say to her: 'Of necessity, your return here is a public event, observed by many eyes, but we do not forget that you are also coming back to your old home and to a city full of memories," Prof Jenkyns said.

"Here you studied and formed friendships, here you knew the delights of youth, here as a wife and mother you lived a quiet domestic life, until your love of country and passion for the cause of freedom summoned you back; but you were forced to leave behind a beloved husband and children, so that your return to your native land was made into a kind of exile.

"For many years you bore the burden of isolation, displaying patience and endurance to a degree not easily imagined.

"We hail you with joy as you appear in Oxford once more."

Oxford's famous Sheldonian Theatre was packed with dons, university staff and students for today's annual ceremony, all eager to hear Suu Kyi speak.

Many were dressed in official scarlet or black robes.

Outside, crowds had gathered early, keen for a glimpse of the icon who has not visited the UK for more than two decades.

A hush fell over the congregation as this morning's ceremony began with a trumpet fanfare and procession of senior Oxford dons.

The Chancellor, Chris Patten, then summoned the university's ceremonial officials, known as Bedels, to collect the honorands.

Suu Kyi, referred to as Daw Suu, wearing scarlet robes with scarlet sleeves and a black velvet bonnet, with yellow flowers in her hair, entered first alongside Prof Jenkyns.

After his oration, she was admitted to receive her degree by Lord Patten, and smiled broadly as she stepped up to accept the honour.

The congregation gave her a loud round of applause lasting over a minute, with some attendees standing to get a good view as she walked to her seat.

Oxford originally awarded Ms Suu Kyi the advanced degree in April 1993, but she has been unable to accept it in person until now.

"I regret to report that one of today's graduates has kept us waiting for 19 years," Prof Jenkyns said in his Creweian Oration after all the awards were conferred.

Suu Kyi was one of eight people receiving awards today, and Prof Jenkyns said that all of them were equal.

But he added: "None of them will mind me adding that some are more equal than others."

The other honorands were Baroness Eliza Manningham-Buller, former head of MI5; author David Cornwell, otherwise known as John le Carre; Professor Drew Faust, president of Harvard University; Sir Howard Stringer, chairman of the Sony Corporation; philosopher Professor Charles Taylor; neurologist Henry Barnett and physicist Professor William Phillips.