Tin Oo, Former General and Founder of Myanmar’s NLD, Dies at 97

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Tin Oo, Former General and Founder of Myanmar’s NLD, Dies at 97

During his long career, Tin Oo played important roles on both sides of the struggle between the military and the pro-democracy movement.

Tin Oo, Former General and Founder of Myanmar’s NLD, Dies at 97

Tin Oo, patron of Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, speaks during a ceremony to mark the 24th anniversary of the Aug. 8, 1988, demonstrations, which triggered one of the country’s bloodiest uprisings, in Yangon, Myanmar, Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2012.

Credit: AP Photo/Khin Maung Win, File

Tin Oo, a founding member of Myanmar’s National League for Democracy (NLD) and a former commander-in-chief of the country’s army, died on Saturday at the age of 97, according to media reports. The New York Times quoted his personal assistant as saying that he had died at Yangon General Hospital of kidney failure and pulmonary edema on Saturday, after months of health problems.

Perhaps more than any other living figure, Tin Oo encapsulated the various facets of his country’s twentieth-century political drama. After rising to the leadership of the army during the dictatorship of Gen. Ne Win, Tin Oo was purged and imprisoned, and helped found the NLD, the country’s main opposition party, during a violent failed pro-democracy uprising in 1988.

After his release from prison in 2010, he played an important role in the country’s reform and opening, compared the country’s “transition” from military dictatorship to civilian rule to his own journey from loyal service to pro-democracy activism.

“Personally, I know transition is difficult and challenging,” he said in a 2014 speech to an Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting quoted by the New York Times. “I have been a general, a political prisoner, a monk, a law student, a lawyer, and a founding member of a political party, the NLD,” he said. “I had to face up to the harm I did to people when I served in the army. For this, I have apologized and committed myself to the cause of human rights and democracy.”

Tin Oo was born on March 12, 1927, in the port city of Pathein in southern Myanmar, the oldest of six siblings. He joined the military in 1946, two years before Myanmar won its independence from Great Britain. He climbed steadily up through the ranks, leading campaigns against the Communist Party of Burma and other ethnic armed groups, including the Karen National Union.

In March 1974, he was appointed commander-in-chief of the Myanmar army, a position that he held until 1976, when he was forced to step down and imprisoned for four years, accused of being an accessory to a failed coup against Ne Win. After his release in an amnesty in 1980, he never reconciled with the military. He subsequently took a law degree and in October 1988, during the tumult that followed the army’s bloody crackdown on nationwide pro-democracy demonstrations, co-founded the NLD with  Aung San Suu Kyi and Aung Gyi, another former military officer.

Like many other pro-democracy activists and NLD members, he paid a price for his turn against the military,. Like Aung San Suu Kyi, he spent 14 of the next 21 years under house arrest or in prison before he was released in February 2010. Throughout this time, he was a confidante of Aung San Suu Kyi and was one of a small circle of former military officers who advised her during her 15 years under house arrest.

According to the obituary published by The Irrawaddy, on his first visit to the NLD headquarters after his release, “the first thing U Tin Oo did was to salute the flag of the party he cofounded in 1988.” The party noted, “His loyalty to the party was as strong as it had been 22 years previous.”

In the subsequent years, as the Myanmar military adopted a more open international position, he put much hope in the fact that his old military colleagues could be brought around as he was. In late 2011, when I interviewed Tin Oo at the NLD headquarters in Yangon, he said he believed that the generals, having initiated a surprising liberalization of the country’s politics and economy, could not afford to reverse course. “They cannot go back again from this position, they have to carry on forward. It may be very small steps,” he said. “They can’t move backwards – right now the people will not stand [for it].”

As vice-chairman of the NLD, Tin Oo once again settled into an important advisory role in the run-up to the general election of 2015, when the NLD was elected to office in a landslide. He was even considered for the role of president, though he claimed to be too old to serve effectively. (Aung San Suu Kyi was barred from serving by a contentious clause in the constitution.)

While he subsequently stepped back from active duty in the NLD due to his health issues, especially after the 2021 coup, Tin Oo remained an inspiration to younger activists struggling against the military’s baleful influence in Myanmar’s society and politics. “A dutiful and loyal Uncle U Tin Oo, may you rest in peace,” Zin Mar Aung, the foreign minister of the National Unity Government, which is spearheading the opposition to the current military junta, posted on social media.

Like many of his colleagues in the ethnic Bamar-dominated NLD, Tin Oo could have a blind spot for the aspirations of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities, against whom he led campaigns during his time in the army. This was particularly glaring in the case of the Muslim Rohingya of Rakhine State, which the military targeted with a vicious “clearance operation” during the NLD’s administration in 2017 – one that United Nations experts and the United States have described as an act of genocide.

During an interview with Radio Free Asia in late 2011, Tin Oo called Rohingya “illegal immigrants,” a claim that the military and politicians later used to justify the military’s clearance operation. Later, during the campaign for the 2015 election, he gave a speech in Rakhine State during which he bragged of leading the military in driving out “the East Pakistanis that invaded Rakhine State” in the 1950s and promised his Buddhist Rakhine audience that he would “defend your interests and the territorial integrity of Rakhine State.” Rohingya activists claim that during his time as a military leader in Rakhine State, troops under Tin Oo’s command destroyed 32 villages in Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships.

In this sense, Tin Oo’s career reflected both the remarkable self-sacrifice of the NLD’s senior leadership, many of whom paid dearly for their political commitments, and the political limitations of their party, which was, for the most part, a movement of the Bamar majority. As the academic Geoff Aung noted on X (formerly Twitter) over the weekend in reaction to Tin Oo’s death, the party, “is best understood within a lowland Burman militarism, not apart from or (fully) in opposition to it.”

In any event, Tin Oo appeared to recognize on some level that the military’s cloistered leadership would have difficulty in fully ceding power to a civilian authority. “They are a little bit scared for the future of their positions,” he told me of the generals in 2011, a decade before Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing decided to terminate their experiment in managed openness. “They don’t want to make any discussion, because they are full of wealth, and at the same time full of power.”