The Legacy of Writer and Activist Win Tin


Myanmar is grieving the death of Burmese writer and pro-democracy leader U Win Tin, who died of renal failure on April 21 at the age of 85.

Win Tin was editor of a popular newspaper in the 1960s, when he became critical of the military junta. Perhaps his most enduring legacy was his role in establishing the National League for Democracy (NLD), the political party of global democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

He was arrested in 1989 and remained in detention for 19 years, making him 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.

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He continued to write inside his cell by using a strip of bamboo as pen and powdered brick as ink. In 1996, his jail term was extended seven years after he sent an 83-page report to the United Nations about the poor prison conditions in Myanmar and the human rights violations perpetrated by the ruling junta. About 115 prisoners signed the petition.

Because of his refusal to cooperate with authorities, he was regularly tortured and denied medical attention. His health deteriorated but he remained steadfast in his fight for democracy.

Win Tin was finally released in 2008 but he refused the amnesty given by the president because he didn’t want to recognize the legitimacy of the military-backed government. After regaining his freedom, he surprised many when he insisted on wearing a blue prison shirt in solidarity with other political prisoners.

Win Tin was seen as a hardliner and influential figure in the democracy movement, which explains why the government imprisoned him for almost two decades. In recent years, he was one of those who remained skeptical of Myanmar’s so-called transition to modern democracy. He even expressed misgivings over the decision of Aung San Suu Kyi and NLD to participate in the elections and the parliamentary process.

He once said in an interview that Aung San Suu Kyi only wanted to “to push the military into Kandawgyi Lake” (in central Yangon) while many people wanted to drive the army generals into the Bay of Bengal. Despite this critical comment, Win Tin remained on good terms with Aung San Suu Kyi, seeing her as the only political figure capable of uniting the country.

Win Tin reportedly wished to be buried quickly but this is quite impossible with so many people and organizations wanting to honor him. Even the government acknowledged his many sacrifices for the sake of the nation.

“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,” said Ye Htut, deputy minister of information.

Aung Zaw of The Irrawaddy 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 documentary about Win Tin, remembered the late journalist as an uncompromising activist: “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’.”

Many others have paid tribute to Win Tin and all were inspired by his intellect, commitment and passion in pursuing his principles. His unbending political stance will continue to exert a profound impact, on the opposition forces and indeed on all Myanmar politics.

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