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Win Tin: Myanmar’s Longest-held Political Prisoner Dies at 85

Win Tin, legendary Burmese journalist and activist, died last April 21. Photo from @hrw (Human Rights Watch

Win Tin, legendary Burmese journalist and activist, died last April 21. Photo from @hrw (Human Rights Watch

Veteran Burmese journalist and pro-democracy activist U Win Tin died of renal failure on April 21, 2014 at the age of 85.

Before the rise of the military junta in the 1960s, Win Tin was editor of Myanmar’s most popular newspaper. In 1988, he helped form the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) and supported the candidacy of Aung San Suu Kyi.

He was accused of being a communist and got arrested in 1989. After three years, his prison term was extended after he was charged with sedition. In 1996, he was convicted again to another seven years in jail after he sent an 83-page report to the United Nations about the poor prison conditions in Myanmar.

He was finally released in 2008 after being incarcerated for 19 years. But despite regaining his freedom, he continued to wear a blue prison shirt in solidarity with other political prisoners.

He remained a loyal and good friend of Aung San Suu Kyi although he was critical of some of her political decisions including the participation of the NLD in the elections.

Win Tin was Myanmar’s longest-held political prisoner. Unlike Aung San Suu Kyi who was placed under house arrest, Win Tin was detained in a cell designed for military dogs.

Zin Linn, a former political prisoner, described Win Tin’s prison cell:

They put him alone in his cell. The cell was 8.5 x 11.5 feet. There was only a bamboo mat on the concrete floor. Sleeping, eating, walking and cleaning the bowels were done in the very same place. He could not see the sun, the moon or the stars. He was intentionally barred from breathing fresh air, tasting nourishing food and drinking a drop of fresh water. The worst thing was to stay lonely in such a cage for years.

He called Win Tin ‘the most valiant journalist in Burma’:

For the junta, U Win Tin is really a rocky mountain. Although they wish to crush that mountain, they could never do it. But as tough as was with his oppressors, his tenderness towards his comrades and his people was boundless. He truly deserves great honor for his sacrifices.

Kyaw Zwa Moe, editor of the Irrawaddy magazine, noted how Win Tin never compromised with the ruling junta despite his failing health:

But for any oppressive government, Win Tin was a great enemy. Due to his political activities, the former regime put him in jail for nearly two decades, tortured him, withheld medical treatment and confiscated his home. When they eventually released him in 2008, they demanded that he remain on parole. Still, despite their pressure, he never backed down from his principles.

Ye Htut, deputy minister of information, released a statement in behalf of the government:

We have different political views than Win Tin, but we all take our hats off to him for his commitment to his beliefs and for his sacrifices. Though we don’t agree with him, we take seriously his good intentions to make the country developed, democratic and prosperous in the ways he believed. We believe U Win Tin’s death is a great loss—not only the loss of an open voice of criticism in Burmese politics, but also Burmese media has lost a journalist of experience and wisdom.

Mya Aye, member of the 88 Generation Students Group, recognized Win Tin as a humble and selfless leader:

We must be proud of him and think of him as a role-model politician …He didn’t want to bother anyone. He even had a wish for an immediate funeral. He was a selfless man. He didn’t want any property for himself, he only served the country. He deserved to see that which he sacrificed for.

Aung Zaw described Win Tin as a guiding light of the democracy movement:

Win Tin was a keen, unrelenting government critic to the very end, intent on taking down all the obstacles on Burma’s long road to democracy.

Without his guiding light, it’s hard to imagine how the democracy movement will treat the many challenges ahead during this unpredictable democratic transition, where there are still many wolves in sheep’s clothing.

Kay Mastenbroek, who made a video documentary about Win Tin, remembered the late journalist as a man who dared to say “no”, when all others said “yes”:

For me, the film tells a story of a strong and independent mind – a man who dared to say “no”, when all others said “yes”. A man who liked to be alone sometimes, but also appreciated the company of the many friends he made during his life. From time to time, he was a little bit obstinate and rebellious, but it’s this kind of person that makes it all more interesting, I think.

I will miss my uncle from Burma, because I would have liked to show him that many journalists and filmmakers will continue to work for better journalism in his country. He would have liked that.

Kenneth Roth, executive director of the Human Rights Watch, paid tribute to Win Tin:

U Win Tin was the exemplar of dignified courage and principle against decades of brutal military rule.

U Win Tin inspired an entire generation of activists who have taken up his call and struggle to make Burma a rights-respecting democracy.

The U.S. Campaign for Burma also honored Win Tin:

As the movement to establish a free Burma continues, let us pay homage to a man who dedicated his life to the cause. U Win Tin was a journalist, a prisoner, a leader, and an icon. Though he is no longer with us, we hope to help create the type of country U Win Tin sought: one represented by the people, all people, unbound by authoritarian control.

The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) Secretary-General Debbie Stothard recalled how Win Tin never backed down in criticizing the ‘flawed reform process’ undertaken by the current civilian government:

When many were applauding the recent progress in Burma, we needed Win Tin to remind us of the sober reality of the country’s flawed reform process. He will be greatly missed but never forgotten.

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