Calling for Justice: The Prison Death of an NLD Leader
By Kyaw Zwa Moe 29 December 2017
Monywa U Tin Shwe was born on April 17, 1930, in Monywa, central Myanmar. From 1952 to 1960 he was actively involved in the student union movements at the universities in Yangon and Mandalay. Later, he earned a living as an author and lawyer. At the height of the nationwide pro-democracy uprising in 1988 he served as chairman of the general strike committee in Yangon’s Insein Township. He was one of the founders of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and served on its central committee. His primary role with the party was as division organizer in Mandalay. When he died in June 1997, he was survived by three sons and his wife, Daw Myat Thu.
The Irrawaddy spoke with one of his sons, Kaung Myat Shwe, about his father’s arrest and death.
Kyaw Zwa Moe: It has been 20 years since Saya Monywa U Tin Shwe passed away. It is sad that he was in solitary confinement in Insein Prison when he died on June 8, 1997. I heard he fell while he was meditating and then lost consciousness. Then he was sent to the prison hospital and died later. Could you tell me about that day?
Kaung Myat Shwe: We only know what the military intelligence [MI, officially the Directorate of Defense Services Intelligence] told us, and we don’t know what actually happened that day. We were told that he was brought out of prison and sent to Yangon General Hospital. But when he arrived at the OPD [Outpatient Department] of Yangon Hospital he was already dead. We don’t know if he had already died in prison or on the way to hospital. But apparently the government was desperate to convince us that he was still alive when he arrived at the OPD and that he died only after he arrived at the hospital. I know this because the doctor on duty at the hospital OPD that time was Dr. Moh Moh San. I heard that she told the [prison and intelligence officials] that the OPD could only accept patients who are alive, but it was a dead body and must be sent to the mortuary. Then she had a bitter argument with MI and prison officials. Then MI officials went to see the medical superintendent who came down and ordered the doctor to accept registration.
Finally, my father was registered as a live patient at the hospital OPD. And we were told that he died while he was sent from OPD to Ward 1-2 around 1:30 p.m. We heard that he arrived at the OPD around 12:55 p.m. Then two prison officials came in plain clothes to our home around 4 p.m. that day. They told us that my father passed away at noon. My mother didn’t expect that because she just visited him two days ago on June 6. So she asked them why, but then the two left our house saying that we were shouting at them. So my mother, one of our neighbors, Dr. Aung Thu, and I went to the hospital in Dr. Aung Thu’s car. We arrived at the mortuary and we said we were the family members of U Tin Shwe and we would like to see his body. But they didn’t let us in.
KZM: Who stopped you?
KMS: The mortuary staff didn’t know us. I think they were the MI officials waiting for us there. But they all were in plain clothes. They said they had no authority to show us his body. And they also asked Dr. Aung Thu who he was and why he came with us.
KZM: So, you were not allowed to see the body that day?
KMS: Yes, we were not allowed to see the body that day, and we were not allowed as well when I went with my elder brother the next day.
KZM: How did the MI and prison officials arrange for the funeral?
KMS: We didn’t know what to do after we came back from the hospital. So I went to see an MI captain who was assigned to watch over my father since he was placed in solitary confinement. The captain reported to his senior commanding officer, Captain Yan Naing Soe, or maybe Yan Naing Oo. Then he took me to Insein Prison and let me talk to prison officials about my father’s funeral. I was asked to do two things. I had to write the obituary notice for my father there.
KMZ: In the office of the prison governor?
KMS: Yes. And our family was asked to sign a document to guarantee that political disturbances will not happen at the funeral. I had to sign it on my family’s behalf. They asked us to make sure nobody made trouble at the funeral.
KZM: Did they place any restrictions on the wording of the obituary? Were the restrictions applied by both MI and prison officials?
KMS: Mainly the prison officials spoke to us. MI Captain Soe Maung Maung and the prison governor were drinking on the other side of the office. They were in the same room with us as I was talking to other prison officials.
KZM: So they were watching you. So what kind of obituary were you asked to write?
KMS: Mainly they didn’t allow me to mention the NLD in the obituary. And they didn’t allow me to mention that he died in prison. I was only allowed to mention his profession, lawyer, and when he died.
KZM: And his age, 67.
KMS: Yes, his age and the names of his parents and family members. I was asked to write a simple obituary.
KMZ: So they asked you to write the obituary in front of them. But what about sending the obituary to the newspaper to publish it?
KMS: They gave me a copy of it, and I took it to the newspaper. Another copy kept by the MI and the prison officials had already been sent to the newspaper. And [newspaper staff] checked the two copies to see if they matched before approving it for publication. They did it for fear that I would have made some changes to the obituary.
KZM: Speaking of his health, he survived seven years in prison. That is a long time. He could endure it. What disease was he suffering from? What was the cause of his death?
KMS: He died of atherosclerosis, which blocked his arteries. This was the cause of his death. But before that he was not allowed to go out of his cell very much during the seven years. He was only allowed to go out for an hour a day. But he did exercise regularly when he was in the cell. He took good care of his health. But in November 1995, 45 political prisoners were interrogated for allegedly publishing journals and newspapers and of sending letters to the U.N. And they were placed in solitary confinement, and my father was one of them.
KZM: So he was alone in the cell?
KMS: Yes, he was alone. He was put in cell 6. It has an abandoned basement and groundwater permeated it. So his cell had water underneath, and coupled with Yangon’s cold season….
KZM: Those cells were used for punishment.
KMS: Yes, they were. Because that cell had water underneath, it was too cold for a 60-year-old man. And he had access to neither blanket nor bed. This negatively affected his health, and his health started to deteriorate.
KMZ: Was he already suffering from health problems when he was arrested?
KMS: He was fine and had no health problems at the time of arrest.
KZM: He was arrested in November 1990 and put behind bars in 1991 and stayed in prison until 1997. So when did you find out about his heart condition?
KMS: We found out about it in April 1997. He was hospitalized on April 5 because of poor health.
KZM: Was it the prison hospital?
KMS: Yes, it was the prison hospital. He was discharged a few days later. Then we went to visit him and learned about his health condition.
KZM: What did you arrange for his health then? He was ill and around 67 years old.
KMS: He told us about the condition of the prison hospital. He said he wanted to receive medical treatment at an outside hospital because there was nothing [medicine or medical equipment] at the prison hospital. So we wrote a request letter to General Khin Nyunt on April 21. We asked him to allow my father to receive medical care at a well-equipped hospital in Yangon. There was no reply. We sent the request in April and he died two months later in June.
KZM: As far as I know, NLD Chairman U Aung Shwe also sent a letter to Senior General Than Shwe, the chairman of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) on April 23, 1997. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has written about it in an article. U Aung Shwe’s letter reads: ‘This is to inform that authorities will be responsible if U Tin Shwe dies as a result of having no access to necessary medicines and foods and hospitalization as a patient.’ This is the letter written by the NLD for one of its leaders. You said you visited your father two days before his death. So what did he say during that visit and before that?
KMS: The news of his deteriorating health had spread beyond the prison. Major General Tun Kyi had brotherly relations with him because both of them were Monywa natives.
KZM: He was a member of SLORC, wasn’t he?
KMS: Yes, he was. So Maj-Gen Tun Kyi asked after my father through his brother-in-law. So we asked if he could help him receive medical care. He replied that it was a political case and all political cases were handled by General Khin Nyunt and he could not help us. He said he was close to General Maung Aye, but even if he asked him he would not be able to help.
KZM: Gen Maung Aye was second in rank [after Snr-Gen Than Shwe] at SLORC.
KMS: Yes. Even the second top brass could not intervene, and he said he was sorry that he couldn’t help.
KZM: So he meant that you had to submit a request to Gen Khin Nyunt.
KMS: He said all the decisions about political issues were made by Gen Khin Nyunt and other [SLORC] members; even the vice chairman could not step in.
KZM: Did your father know about the request letter?
KMS: At first he had some expectations. He was in the prison hospital in May, almost the whole month. Later, he told us that our efforts would be in vain. He said conditions at the prison hospital were not very good. There were two large rooms on the upper floor of the prison hospital. And people from one room were cleared out, and he was put alone in that room. He was placed there alone so that he could talk to no one. And there was no doctor to do daily checkups on him. Since he was sent to the prison hospital, a fellow inmate who was assigned to work in the prison hospital nursed him.
KZM: So an inmate nursed him and there was no nurse and medic?
KMS: There was none. He said if authorities were concerned about security even while he was in the prison compound, they would surely not allow him to go to an outside hospital. They would not let him go outside even though he would not be able to do anything considering his age and his health condition. So he told us not to try anymore because it was useless.
KMZ: Could you tell me about how he was arrested? He participated in the NLD relentlessly. He was one of the central committee members nominated by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. He also took charge of the NLD Mandalay chapter. How was he arrested? I heard that police declared him a fugitive.
KMS: After the Gandhi Meeting [the meeting of NLD representatives elected in the 1990 poll, whose results SLORC rejected], the 5/90 meeting of the central committee was held on August 30-31 in 1990 in Yangon. Many NLD leaders were arrested on the night of Nov. 30 such as Uncle U Kyi Maung, Uncle U Thein Tan of Mandalay and Uncle U Ohn Kyaing. On the morning of Nov. 30, my eldest brother drove my father to the central committee meeting. At the head office, my father told my brother that circumstances were not good and that he would not come back home in the evening and that he would contact us later and asked us not to do anything until he contacted us. So when [MI] came to our house, they didn’t find my father. They interrogated us from [midnight] to 5 a.m. Around 5 a.m, they asked my mother to tell them five houses where she thought my father was likely to go to. So my mother named five places where she thought my father was unlikely to go and some good friends who would not be upset by being woken up early in the morning.
When they came to search for my father, I was detained at Insein Prison for participating in a protest at my university. And police from the Special Branch came and met me at the prison. They asked me where my father usually stayed when he came to Yangon.
KZM: They came to dig up information.
KMS: They asked me if I knew the five houses my mother had told them about. Maybe because of luck, my father was at one of the five houses that my mother had named.
KZM: So he was arrested, wasn’t he?
KMS: No, he wasn’t. They were late. My father really was at one of the houses. We found out later. But my mother thought that he was at another house. Luckily, he escaped. Then he went to Mandalay from Yangon. There, he hid in monasteries such as Ma Soe Yein and Mya Taung with the help of monks. He then went into hiding from places to places. Finally, he went to the house of my mother’s brother. He hid there once in 1989. When [the military] arrested Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in 1989, they also attempted to arrest him in Mandalay. Luckily, he escaped that time too.
KZM: When did the military regime issue the warrant for him? How?
KMS: I think the warrant was issued for him on Nov. 28, 1990. The warrant was published along with his photo on the newspaper. He saw the newspaper on Nov. 29. He thought he had been on the run for quite a while and he was concerned that the people who were helping him would get into trouble if he was arrested. And since he was a lawyer, he decided to face SLORC in accordance with the law. So the day after he got the newspaper, he went to the Mandalay Region SLORC Office and handed himself in.
That evening an MI official came to the house of my mother’s brother, and he said they would bring my father to Yangon by plane and that we would have to pay for the plane ticket.
KZM: So it was not paid by the government?
KMS: Yes. He said we had to pay for the plane ticket. He came at noon and my aunty was alone at the house. She said there was nobody else and she had no money. So she told him to come back in the evening for the money. But he didn’t come back.
KZM: So one has to pay out of his own pocket to be arrested.
KMS: It can be said so. Maybe they wanted to inform us that my father was being brought to Yangon. They might have had other intentions.
KZM: Was he tortured during interrogation?
KMS: He didn’t say. It was quite difficult to talk freely with him when we visited him at the prison. Whenever we visited him, there was a person sitting next to us who wrote down everything we said. So we could talk about nothing except family matters.
KZM: He was a lawyer and you said he wanted to plead for himself. Was he allowed to do so?
KMS: He wasn’t. The military tribunal sentenced him in the absence of the family. He was charged in two cases. On August 8, 1990, students in Mandalay offered rice to mark the anniversary of the 1988 uprising. And soldiers and police beat the students who offered rice. And monks and students were injured in the beatings. The Mandalay Region NLD issued a statement about it, and monks subsequently staged a protest against the military regime. So the military accused the Mandalay Region NLD of causing the monks to protest and my father was sentenced to eight years in prison for this. Another thing is that after the Gandhi Hall meeting the NLD formed three teams, and each team submitted a list of recommendations about how the NLD should move forward. My father, together with other members, submitted recommendations. And he was given ten years in prison for this. Uncle U Kyi Maung was also imprisoned in this case.
KZM: The MI even placed restrictions on the obituary notice in the newspaper. What else did they restrict?
KMS: MI officials said that Buddhist rituals for the funeral would be conducted at Yangon General Hospital, and then the body would be sent to Yayway Cemetery [in North Okkalapa Township] for the funeral. We wanted to entomb him, but prison authorities wanted to cremate him. They seemingly wanted him to disappear into ashes. So I had an argument with him.
KZM: Who did you talk to?
KMS: With the prison governor. He recommended cremating my father as if he were doing so for our own benefit. But I insisted on entombing, saying that one of my brothers was abroad and there must be a place for him to pay respects to his father when he came back. Originally, they said that the Buddhist rituals would be conducted at Yangon General Hospital. But at about 8 or 9 a.m. that morning, an MI official came and said that the ritual would not be conducted at the hospital but that a hall would be arranged at Yayway Cemetery for it instead. Those who didn’t know about it went to Yangon Hospital. Some colleagues of my father and his junior lawyers arranged two buses and waited at Yangon Hospital. Then they came to Yayway Cemetery from there. And we had an argument with authorities again when they barred the funeral procession from going to the tomb from the rest house after the Buddhist rituals were completed. They only allowed the family members to go and barred the others.
KZM: So were there NLD members there?
KMS: Yes, nearly 1,000 NLD members, lawyers, writers and politicians came to his funeral.
KZM: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was not under house arrest at the time. Did she come to the funeral?
KMS: She couldn’t. She fell down a staircase at her house before my father died. Her leg was injured, so she couldn’t go outside.
KZM: What about other leaders?
KMS: They came. Uncle U Tin Oo and other CEC [Central Executive Committee] members came. MI officials said that only the family members would be allowed to go to the tomb. Then Uncle U Tin Oo told them not to impose restrictions and violate the human rights of the deceased. So everyone in the funeral procession was allowed to go to the place where my father would be entombed. But the authorities played dirty. They ordered all the buses we rented for the funeral to leave. So when the funeral procession arrived back at the rest house all the buses had gone. So, many had to walk to the nearest bus stop in North Okkalapa Township.
KZM: His funeral was held under the eyes of the MI to the end. According to the photos I’ve seen, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and your father seemed to be close. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi wrote an article about his death in a Japanese newspaper. Did she contact your family?
KMS: When my father died, Aunty Suu couldn’t go outside [because of her injured leg]. So she asked [her aide] Daw Khin Khin Win to go to our house on her behalf to ask about his death. We have held anniversaries of his death almost annually. Sometimes we sent invitations and sometimes we didn’t. When Aunty Suu was not under house arrest she always came to the anniversary and met us. At that time it was quite difficult for political activists to gather and they could only gather when there were funerals. They gathered partly in order to show their strength. We held anniversaries of his death to show that we, his family, supported what he had done even after his death, and partly so that political activists could gather at the anniversaries. We tried as much as we could to hold an anniversary every year.
KZM: What restrictions did the MI impose on family members? Usually they imposed stricter restrictions on political prisoners, especially party senior leaders. What restriction did you face?
KMS: They kept an eye on me while I was studying. I experienced things that wouldn’t usually happen to normal students. After I matriculated, I went to GTI (Government Technical Institute). At that time my father didn’t have a national registration card. He was serving in Mandalay for the NLD, and one of his visits to Yangon coincided with the government issuing national registration cards. So he went to the office and applied for the registration card. But he was not in Yangon when the government issued his card. Later he became a fugitive and was imprisoned, so he had no registration card. So I had to explain this whenever I was to take an exam [students must show a copy of their father’s ID to take exams]. And after I passed GTI, my name was not on the pass list because my father had no national registration card. So I told the GTI authorities that my eldest brother is a doctor, because people can only study medicine when both of their parents are citizens. And I had to submit a lot of other documents, and only after that did they give me the degree certificate.
KZM: NLD chairman U Aung Shwe released a statement in 1997 that said, ‘This is to inform that authorities will be responsible if U Tin Shwe dies as a result of having no access to necessary medicines and foods and hospitalization as a patient.’ Your father did die. Who do you think is responsible for this?
KMS: Chief of Intelligence General Khin Nyunt. As far as I know, he took charge of all the political issues for SLORC. So I’d say he is responsible. And according to a post-mortem test of my father, the cause of his death was atherosclerosis. It was not a difficult disease to cure. If my father had access to medical checkups with ECG his death could have been prevented, we think.
KZM: As the NLD has said, and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has written in her article, he was denied fundamental human rights. It has been 20 years now since his death. Sixty-seven is not too old. As a writer, lawyer and NLD leader, he could still do a lot. Now we have seen a democratic government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. What do you want to say about the injustice your father faced?
KMS: We don’t hold a grudge and don’t want to take revenge. But our family wants responsibility and accountability for what happened then. We want the true history to be revealed. Especially General Khin Nyunt. He is shifting the blame by saying he was assigned to do so. We want everyone to know that he is responsible. And he should take responsibility.
KZM: What would you like to say to General Khin Nyunt through this interview?
KMS: I want to tell him to be brave and take responsibility for the truth.