After 19 Years Behind Bars, Journalist Win Tin’s Fiery Spirit Is Far From Broken

By Kay Latt 21 April 2015

Burmese democracy activist Win Tin, who passed away in Rangoon one year ago today, spent 19 years as a political prisoner due to his opposition to the former military regime. In this article from The Irrawaddy’s archives—originally published in 2007, one year before Win Tin’s release—another former political prisoner, Kay Latt, pays tribute to the democracy activist’s resilience behind bars. Kay Latt lived beside Win Tin for four years in the same cell block of Rangoon’s notorious Insein Prison, where he saw how the co-founder of the National League for Democracy (NLD) sought comfort in the news and in friendships with other political prisoners.

Like the English poet William Blake, who wrote the immortal line “Tiger, tiger, burning bright,” Burma’s long-serving political prisoner, writer and journalist Win Tin used the image of the proud jungle predator as a metaphor in o­ne of his own works.

“As long as the black stripes o­n the yellow background are vividly painted, the tiger is still a tiger,” Win Tin wrote—a line that embraces a metaphor for himself and his caged existence. After 18 years behind bars, Win Tin is defiantly saying that caging a tiger doesn’t change the animal into a docile cat. The tiger remains a tiger.

Win Tin actually befriended a cat in prison, and the animal repaid him by contributing some of its hair to bind a paste from which he made crayons. The inventive and determined writer crushed bits of red brick, mixing them with water and then binding the mixture with cat’s hair. After two days in the sun, the dried mixture provided serviceable red crayons.

I first met Win Tin when he was transferred to cell block 3 of Insein prison, where I was also incarcerated. He had just been sentenced to serve a further 11 years shortly before completing his first term of imprisonment—a flagrant act of calculated cruelty by the regime.

At first, we were able to meet and exchange a few words daily during the 15 minutes when we were allowed out of our cells to shower and empty slop pails. But I also found opportunities to visit his cell, when he invariably asked: “Any news today?”

A senior jailer who overheard these exchanges even gave Win Tin the nickname “Mr. Any News.” News and books were indispensable to Win Tin—he called them a kalikaw, which means “timeless need” in Pali.

Admitted o­nce to the prison’s hospital block for hernia treatment, he couldn’t wait to exchange the relative comfort of his sick room for his dank and filthy cell because he missed his reading matter and his “news.”

He told me after his discharge from hospital that although the facilities and standard of comfort were “three star,” he wasn’t happy there. He had nobody to talk to, no news, no reading material, no paper to write—and he missed the singing of political prisoners from neighboring cells.

His political engagement remains undampened in prison, and he has paid dearly for his defiance of authority, seeing his sentence willfully increased despite his age and failing health.

I lived in the same cell block as Win Tin for four years, until I was transferred to another prison. He talked to me and other prisoners o­n every topic except his personal life and family, admitting o­nly that it was difficult to live alone. The news from outside that was so important to him never disclosed anything about any family members, although friends visited and engaged him in debate.

He never asked any favor from anybody apart from news and books. If he was given a treat he gave it away to somebody more in need. O­nce, o­n my birthday, I asked him to let me wash his blanket. He refused, but I told him I wanted to perform a kuthoel (a good deed) o­n my birthday, and then he handed his blanket over. And it certainly needed washing!

Win Tin told me he’d like to see me become a journalist, and he set about teaching me the trade. He entrusted me with completing his unfinished works. Whatever I achieve as a journalist I shall owe to him.

His strict routine extends to his eating habits—just o­ne daily meal and some gruel in the evening. He has his preferences, though: sausages, fried eel and peanuts. But his teeth give him problems, and he can’t manage hard food. He has other health problems, which restrict what comfort he has in prison. He has to wear a neck collar because of a spinal problem and a hernia belt.

Despite failing health and the rigors of life in o­ne of the world’s most notorious prisons, Win Tin’s spirit remains unbroken. He is truly a tiger—and will remain o­ne.

Kay Latt is a former political prisoner who lived in exile for many years. This article was originally published by The Irrawaddy magazine in July 2007.