21 April 2014

Photo: U Win Tin at his final public appearance, the East-West Center’s International Media Conference held in Yangon in March (Photo: East-West Center/flickr).

U Win Tin, a founding member of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and a prominent journalist whose political activities and writings served as a thorn in the military’s side for decades, died on Monday morning in Rangoon of kidney failure. He was 85 years old.

He holds the dubious distinction of being Burma’s longest-serving political prisoner; condemned by the military to Rangoon’s Insein Prison in 1989, he was confined for 19 years by a government afraid of his intellect and willingness to sacrifice for what he felt was right.

“U Win Tin was a journalist and also a politician; a very righteous and honest man who really loved his country,” Thiha Saw, a veteran journalist and the deputy chairman of the Myanmar Journalists’ Association, told DVB.  “I am sad for this great loss. He was an invaluable and irreplaceable loss for the National League for Democracy.”

As a young man, Win Tin served as the editor-in-chief of Kyemon (The Mirror), Burma’s most popular newspaper. In 1969, he became editor-in-chief of the Hanthawaddy Daily in Mandalay, under a cloud of diminishing press freedoms imposed by Ne Win’s military government. His unwillingness to compromise his editorial independence, and his proclivity to run stories critical of the regime, prompted the government to shut the paper down in 1978.

In 1988, he took on a leading role in Burma’s pro-democracy uprising, and became a prominent member of the NLD’s central committee alongside Aung San Suu Kyi. In June of the following year, he led a campaign against a government decree clamping down on illicit dissident publications, invoking the NLD’s motto that citizens should “defy as of duty every order and authority not agreed to by the majority”.

He was arrested the following month and detained for the better part of two decades in extremely poor conditions, which took a serious toll on his physical health. During his imprisonment, he developing diabetes and suffered multiple heart attacks, was denied reading materials and kept in solitary confinement for long stretches in an attempt to break his defiant spirit.

The blue shirts he wore every day following his release – copies of the one that was on his back the day he left prison – symbolised the incomplete nature of Burma’s reforms, and served as a constant reminder that his jailers had not been held to account for their crimes.

His resolve to secure the release of all remaining political prisoners and redouble his political efforts were only magnified by his experiences behind bars. “I made a decision to keep wearing my prison shirt because my friends were still in prison, and I feel that the Burmese people, as a whole, are still in prison,” he told DVB in an interview last year.

Despite the physical toll prison had taken on him, his proclivity for defying injustice was immediately apparent upon his release. “They asked me to surrender my shirt, and I refused. They then asked me for compensation, to pay for the shirt – two thousand kyats. I refused,” he said. “And then they said they would pay the 2,000 kyats and give it to me, but the only thing is I would have to endorse and agree [that they gave it to me]. I refused.

“They came to my house, with officials, the police, and so on, and asked me [to pay] again. I said, ‘No, if you want to send me to jail, send me to jail, I don’t care. I will die in prison’.”

In recent times, he was increasingly critical of the conciliatory tone struck by Aung San Suu Kyi towards the military. Despite his criticisms, he characterised her “the leader and soul of Burma’s democracy” in an interview with Agence France-Presse last year, and his loyalty was unwavering to the end.

“We knew that Aung San Suu Kyi was very tolerant … towards the army, because she said the organisation was set up by her father, and we have to forgive and, as much as possible, cooperate with the military,” he said. “Since the very beginning, I didn’t agree. The military has committed so many crimes, so much oppression.”

Before the 2010 elections, the NLD became deeply divided on the question of partaking in the formal political process. “We were colleagues once; we walked together in the political struggle,” Khin Maung Swe, who founded the National Democratic Force and parted ways with the NLD to contest the 2010 elections, told DVB.

“Despite the differences in our ideologies and opinions, I am very saddened by the news about U Win Tin’s death,” he said. “I would like to express condolences from me and also the National Democratic Force. I believe he will always be remembered in the history of Burma as a remarkable and strong figure who took a firm stance and walked on for what he believed was righteous.”

Although he did not live to see his dream of a truly democratic and free Burma realised, Win Tin’s unwavering commitment to his ideals and his bravery in the face of overwhelming odds will not be soon forgotten.

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