From the Archive

My Prison Life With U Win Tin

By Zin Linn 22 April 2014

Veteran Burmese journalist and political activist Win Tin passed away Monday aged 84. The following account of a fellow political prisoner’s memories of the elder activist, who spent almost 20 years in prison, was originally published by The Irrawaddy in April 2001.  

My name is Zin Linn (a.k.a.) Htay Aung. I am an editor and writer by profession. I was sentenced to two years in the aftermath of being a student unionist and activist in Rangoon during my student years in the 1960s. I served my prison term in the notorious Insein jail from 1982 to 1984. So I know very well about the military dictators’ hellish dungeons.

In August 1988 I participated in the old Students’ Union Association and protested against the dirty Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) regime. In 1989, I became an Executive Committee member of the Thingangyun Township branch of the National League for Democracy (NLD). Then I became an in-charge of the Rangoon Division NLD office. In 1990, I was assigned as the chairman of the Thingangyun township election campaign committee for the NLD candidate. After the election, the junta refused to acknowledge the NLD’s victory, but I continued my political activities. I had contact with the All Burma Students Democratic Front’s (ABSDF) Underground (UG) unit. Then I took on a clandestine duty to distribute the works of the National Coalition Government of Union of Burma (NCGUB) and the Democratic Alliance of Burma (DAB). As a result, I was arrested by the secret police on August 2, 1991 and sentenced to seven years by Military Court No.2. I was put into solitary confinement in the deadly Insein prison for the second round.

There I met Saya U Win Tin, the most valiant journalist in Burma. He is also an outstanding writer and critic. And he is one of the founding members of the NLD. He was arrested on July 4, 1989 and sentenced to three years imprisonment without valid evidence that he did anything against the law. The military regime put him in jail not because of any unlawful activity, but because he was an important consultant to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the NLD.

U Win Tin and I were put in the same building—Cellblock No.3. He was in Cell 2 alone. I was in Cell 9 with Dr. Zaw Myint Maung (MP for Amarapura) and Dr. Myint Naing (MP for Kantbalu). We got a chance to meet each other when the warden let the prisoners of conscience have a bath. If the warden was a good-natured one, we could have a chat for around 10 minutes. We often had a chance to exchange our opinions. U Win Tin occasionally told me of his experiences with the military intelligence personnel. The military agents came to see U Win Tin intermittently. They took him to their office in the jail and interrogated him on a lot of issues. They often tried to persuade him to join the junta. But U Win Tin always rejected their offer.

U Win Tin told me about an incident with the junta’s men. “It happened in 1991,” he said. “They took me out of my cell to an exhibition ‘The Real Story under the Big Waves and Strong Winds’ held at Envoy Hall on U Wizara Road in Rangoon. The aim of the exhibition was to denounce the 1988 uprising as a riot created by destructive elements and terrorists,” said U Win Tin. He told me that there was a big character poster at the entrance of the show saying, “Only when the Tatmadaw [military] is strong, will the nation be strong.” There were many galleries in the show. Each gallery highlighted the role of the army and emphasized that it was the only force that could safeguard the country. The show also described the junta’s discrimination against the role of the democratic institutions and societies. “Sovereign power is only deserved by the generals. That’s the final conclusion,” said U Win Tin.

After witnessing the show, the junta’s agents asked U Win Tin how he felt about the exhibition and inquired if he would like to join the junta. They gave him some paper and a pen and told him to write down his opinion about the show. “I wrote down my criticism. I used 25 sheets of paper. It was a blunt comment. I made my commentary in a sense of sincerity and openness. But it irritated them severely,” he told me later.

First, he criticized the slogan, “Only when the army is strong will the country be strong.” “It’s the logic of the generals to consolidate militarism in Burma,” he explained to me later. “Their logic tells us that they are more important than the people and they expose themselves as power mongers. That means they neglect the people caught in the poverty trap.” Thus he wrote: “The slogan tells us that Burma is going against a policy of peace and prosperity.”

He went on to explain his understanding of the role of the army. He said, “The real thing is that the military comes out of the womb of the people. Thus, the slogan must be like this: ‘The people are the only parents of the military.’ Anyone who does not care about his own parents is a rogue,” he pointed out to the generals. He also emphasized that if the generals really loved peace and wanted prosperity for the nation, they needed to sincerely reflect on their limitations. The generals might want what’s best for the country, but they did not know how to handle the whole situation. They are used to mismanagement. “Eventually, I came straight to the point: The army must go back to the barracks. That will make everything better in Burma,” he said to me plainly.

The junta was very displeased with his criticism and accused him of advising Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to defy the junta. Then, they made another lawsuit against him. The junta increased U Win Tin’s sentence by 10 more years. 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. That might cause anyone to have a nervous breakdown. There are many political prisoners who suffer from mental illness. In such conditions, a 72-year-old journalist has to face a lot of hardship and difficulties. The authorities created an atmosphere of persecution to pressure the writer’s spirit to bow down. But it was in vain. U Win Tin would not alter his beliefs to escape this severe hardship.

Due to his blunt commentary, the junta seized the apartment he owned in Rangoon. Moreover, they did not take care of his health. The director of the Defense Services Intelligence, Col. Than Tun, once came to see U Win Tin and U Tin Htut (now in Australia) in Insein jail. I remember that it was in March 1995. At that time, U Win Tin was not healthy. When he met Col. Than Tun, U Win Tin was wearing a surgical collar as he was suffering from spondylitis. He also had a hernia problem. He always had to use one of his hands to lift his hernia. Besides this, he had already suffered from a stroke twice, and his eyes and teeth were in bad condition. The authorities neglected to arrange a general medical check-up.

Actually, Col. Than Tun came to U Win Tin to test his morale and soften his firmness. But U Win Tin remained unbowed. However, the colonel ordered his men to hospitalize the old journalist. The surgeons, who managed to operate on his hernia, said that the action was late by three years. Due to strangulation, the surgeons decided to remove one of his testicles. After the operation the doctors apologized to the famous writer for failing to save it. So he lost a testicle because the authorities did not take care of a dissident.

When they sent U Win Tin back to his cell, we, the NLD members, had already decided to gather some data on human rights abuses in prisons. We intended to submit a human rights report to the United Nations Golden Jubilee Assembly. We sent a letter of notification to fellow prisoners of conscience, inviting them to participate in the movement. There were over 300 inmates in the cell compound. We organized some wardens to assist us in our activities. Because of the influence of the great 1988 uprising, some wardens sympathized and helped us a lot.

Fellow prisoners from political parties and student organizations were actively involved in collecting data on human rights abuses. After collecting the data, Dr. Zaw Myint Maung, Dr. Myint Naing and I wrote a draft. When U Win Tin came back from the hospital all of us agreed to ask him to edit the report. In fact, it was time for him to rest because of his surgery, but there was no one else who could do the editing. The workload was so overwhelming that he got extremely exhausted. The task was not only heavy, but also dangerous. He had to stay in a corner of his cell all the time while finalizing the report. He had to keep his eyes and ears open at all times because of the guards intermittently patrolling the cells. It was a blessing that he came back from the hospital to help us prepare the report. The luckiest thing was that most wardens respected U Win Tin and did not want to disturb him.

U Win Tin is a staunch fighter for democracy. Before he finalized the report, he took the duty of writing reviews on the current political situation. He regularly delivered them to his fellow prisoners. And he welcomed everybody’s comments on his opinions. Young students eagerly asked him about politics, economics, history, philosophy, literature and so on, writing their questions on plastic sheets with old nails. He replied to them daily without taking time to rest. Using plastic sheet that were once packing bags, he was always pleased to exchange his opinions with younger prisoners.

U Win Tin often said to us: “The nature of the dictators is that they want to wash our brains. To reverse this situation, we must be industrious to build up our brains with knowledge and ideas. They want to empty our brains. We shouldn’t accept their aims. on the contrary, we have to build up our unity and assist each other. Unity alone can overcome the junta’s brainwashing method.

“If we do not try to get messages and ideas from the outside world, we cannot understand the present situation,” he continued. “Then we can’t prepare well for the struggles ahead. That will lead us and our country into an age of darkness.”

It was in first week of July 1995 that U Win Tin finished the final report. It went around among the fellow prisoners of conscience. They gave their consent to the human rights report by contributing their signatures. About 115 prisoners signed the petition. The rest could not give their signatures because of security concerns. We sent the final report with the signatures to Myo Myint Nyein, a fellow prisoner in Cell 17 of Cellblock No. 4 (Long). He was also an editor of the Pe-Phu-Hlwar magazine. He arranged for the assistance of a reliable warden. On July 15, 1995, the report, entitled “Human Rights Abuses in the Junta’s Prisons,” together with the petition, was successfully smuggled out through outside links. Within weeks, they were sent to Mr. Yozo Yokota, the UN Special Rapporteur for Burma, and it was eventually exposed to the international community. The release of both the report and the petition hurt the junta and made the generals extremely angry.

I would like to tell you about another important activity in our prison life. One of them was a fight for prisoners’ rights, including the right to read books and listen to the radio. U Win Tin was the first prisoner of conscience who demanded these rights. Then others followed him. The authorities delayed any response. Time was running out and we had zero tolerance for this situation. Then U Win Tin suggested to us that we should strive to fight for these rights until the authorities allowed us our needs. Finally, we succeeded.

We received Time and Newsweek magazines by smuggling them in. Jimmy (a.k.a.) Kyaw Min Yu, one of our Media Committee Team members, managed to get a pocket-sized radio. Jimmy (of the Democratic Party for a New Society) and Myat Tun (NLD) were in Cell 8 of Cellblock No. 3. They listened to the radio with earphones at night and noted down the news from BBC, VOA and other radio stations. Then they sent the notes to Myo Myint Nyein in Cell 17 of Cellblock No. 4 (Long). Kyi Pe Kyaw (ABSDF) and Khin Maung Phu (a.k.a.) Tukky (of the Karen National Union) were with Myo Myint Nyein. They turned the notes into a weekly news bulletin.

There were six cell compounds and over 300 inmates. Through the help of wardens who sympathized with us, the news bulletin went around among the prisoners of conscience. Moreover, the students in Cellblock No 4 (Long) brought out a magazine called “Diamond Jubilee National Day Annual Issue” and the students in No 4 (Long) also made “The New Blood Wave,” an annual magazine as a commemoration to Phone Maw, the first fallen student in 1988. Only a single, handwritten copy of each issue was produced and circulated among political prisoners, with great care and at even greater risk to those who contributed their energies.

I myself was on the editorial staff of Cellblock No 3. We managed to bring out a monthly magazine named “The Tidal Wave” and another commemorating the 50th birthday of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, called “The Democracy Mothers’ Day Magazine.” In every issue, U Win Tin contributed articles on current political questions as well as the contemporary history of Burmese political science. Everybody in the cells was eager to read his articles.

While we were struggling in our own way, the authorities were trying to uncover our secret activities and identify the responsible prisoners, especially those who took a leadership role in smuggling out the human rights report. They searched for our Achilles’ heel, and at last they found it. Tin Win, one of our fellow inmates and a former army sergeant, who was serving a sentence of more than 50 years, was very depressed and wanted to appeal for release. The authorities enticed him to join the secret agents in the prison so that he could be released. In short, Tin Win became a collaborator and the whole network fell into the hand of secret agents.

At midnight on September 11, 1995, the authorities raided the prison’s cell compounds for a surprise search. They dug up the concrete floors and found some underground casings, in which there were books, papers, pens, colored pencils, two radios, news bulletins and other small tools. Sixty-three inmates were arrested, handcuffed and put into solitary confinement. Eight inmates were sent to the hellish “dog cell.” They were: U Win Tin, Dr Zaw Myint Maung, Dr Myint Naing, Dr Khin Zaw Win (a former UN staffer), U Nine Nine (NLD MP for Pazundaung, NLD), Myo Myint Nyein (a member of the NLD’s information staff), Ko Tun Win (of the Arakan Communist Party) and me.

The secret agents interrogated us all day and all night for a week without letting us take a rest. At that time U Win Tin had just been released from the hospital after his hernia surgery. He was also suffering from a stomach disorder. But the authorities ignored this and forced him and the rest of us to sleep on the concrete floor without drinking water for two full days. Food was just some rice and vegetable soup. The worst thing was none of us were able to clean our bowels. Nor could we bathe for two weeks.

After a nearly two-month investigation, the authorities decided that 37 prisoners deserved charges. Then they split us into two groups to face charges. The first group consisted of 24 prisoners, while the second consisted of 13. But they didn’t file lawsuits against the second group. Instead, the 13 prisoners in the second group were punished according to the jail manual. The first group of 24, including U Win Tin, faced lawsuits. During the trial, eight men in the “dog cell,” including U Win Tin, encouraged each other and everyone remained steadfast. Eight of us held Diamond Jubilee National Day and U Win Tin delivered a National Day speech from his cell. He had to shout his speech in order for us to hear. We clapped our hands in praise of his speech and sang the national anthem in chorus.

On March 12, 1995, we celebrated U Win Tin’s birthday, held in the “dog cell.” All of us sang and prayed for him. We recalled his words: “The junta put us in the ‘dog cell’ to crush our morale, but by doing so our spirits have been hardened and tempered. It is a pity that they don’t even know the law of nature.”

I still remember some words from his speech. “A true politician will do his best, wherever he is, whether in parliament or in prison. His duty is to implement the will of his nation,” he said. “To consider the nation’s future is the most important duty of all of us, even while we are in prison. The dictators can detain only our bodies, but not our souls.”

He added: “True politicians are like gardeners who grow a long-lasting tree. Although he may never have an opportunity to taste the fruit of the tree, he must tend to it for the benefit of future generations.”

On March 28, 1996, twenty-four prisoners of conscience received their sentences from a summary court. They didn’t have attorneys to defend them against the charges laid against them. Four were charged under penal code 5(J), which deals with threats to prison security, and penal code 6, which deals with the formation of anti-junta organizations in prison, and were each sentenced to an additional seven years in prison. Among those who were sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment were Dr Zaw Myint Maung, Jimmy, Ko Soe Myint and Ba Myo Thein. Two prisoners of conscience, who received five-year sentences, were Dr Myint Maing and Thet Min Aung. The rest of the 18 got an additional seven years each. They were: U Win Tin, Myo Myint Nyein, Phyo Min Thein, Htay Win Aung (a.k.a.) Pyone Cho, Zaw Min, Zaw Tun, Nyunt Zaw, Myat Tun, Soe Htet Khine, Tun Win, Win Thein, Sein Hlaing, Kyi Pe Kyaw, Aung Myo Tint, Ko Ko Oo (a.k.a.) Bo Bo, Aung Kyaw Oo, Hla Than and Yin Htwe.

After that incident, the authorities tightened up security. They built an extension wall for each cell and covered it with an iron grille. Then another iron-sheet door was placed so that prisoners could not see anything outside their cells. Moreover, the jail authorities refused to give real medical care to prisoners. So the situation of U Win Tin, the 72-year-old journalist, became even more critical.

In 1994, US Congressman Bill Richardson met four political prisoners in Insein jail. U Win Tin was one of them. At that time he suffered from various health problems such as spondylitis, hernia, heart disease, failing eyesight, and urethritis, as well as piles. And it is said that he also had tuberculosis. Each one of us was surprised how that valiant journalist was so tough even with so many health problems. 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.