Burmese Democracy Activist Win Tin Dies

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 21 April 2014

RANGOON — After supporters across Burma staged prayer services and a candlelight vigil for his recovery, Win Tin, one of the country’s most famous democracy activists, passed away on Monday after suffering from multiple organ failure. He was 84 years old.

Win Tin, who co-founded the National League for Democracy (NLD) party with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, was a veteran journalist known for his relentless activism against the former military regime. After a new government came to power in 2011, he condemned the military’s continuing role in the reform process and was one of few people who dared to also criticize the tactics of Suu Kyi, whom he described as “too conciliatory” with the military leaders that once imprisoned him and put her under house arrest.

“Some of us would like to push the military into the Bay of Bengal. She only wants to push them into Kandawgyi Lake [a lake in the heart of Rangoon],” he told the Washington Post last year, referring to Suu Kyi’s willingness to compromise with the government over amendments to the military-drafted Constitution, which currently bars her from the presidency.

Win Tin was one of Burma’s longest serving political prisoners. Starting in 1989, he spent almost two decades behind bars for co-founding the NLD and later for attempting to inform the United Nations about human rights violations in the country’s prisons.

“I spent more than 7,000 days—one-fourth of my life—in prison. It’s very heart-wrenching,” he wrote in his prison memoir, “Man-made Hell,” which describes instances of torture, malnutrition and limited access to medical care.

After he was released in 2008 at the age of 78, Win Tin was hospitalized frequently for heart problems and other health concerns. Late last month he was transferred to the intensive care unit of Rangoon General Hospital for respiratory problems and hip pain. His doctor told The Irrawaddy that he passed away on Monday morning due to multiple organ failure.

Win Tin worked as a journalist for nearly three decades before becoming one of nine founding members of the NLD in 1988, but he told The Irrawaddy last year that he preferred to introduce himself as a journalist rather than a politician because he sought to contemplate different views.

“Some people say I’m a hardliner. No, I am a man of principle,” he said.

The winner of the Unesco/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize and the World Association of Newspapers’ Golden Pen of Freedom of Award was outspoken in defense of free expression. He accused the former regime of “crimes against humanity” while refusing to support President TheinSein’s current government, which he described as a semi-military regime led by the junta’s former generals. He repeatedly called on government leaders to apologize for their wrongdoings.

“It’s not only for me, but for all the political prisoners mistreated by the country’s military dictatorship since 1988,” he told The Irrawaddy last year, while wearing his blue prison-issued shirt to show solidarity with political prisoners who remained behind bars.

The journalist with wavy white hair and prominent glasses was known for his charming manners. He spoke softly and listened carefully while receiving guests—including diplomats, journalists and activists—in the living room of his two-room cabin home, where he spent many late nights watching Champions League football matches on television. After his release from prison, he had no surviving immediate family members, nor did he have any savings, but he received help from a lifelong friend who gave him the cabin as well as free meals to eat.

Win Tin will be remembered not only for his relentless efforts to promote democracy, but also for a foundation that he founded in 2012 to assist current and former political prisoners as well as fellow journalists lacking financial security. As of last year, the U Win Tin Foundation had given more than 90 million kyats (US$90,000) to over 300 people, with donations coming from Win Tin’s supporters at home and abroad.

Of Burma’s contemporary political landscape, Win Tin once said that the Burmese people needed to completely free themselves from the former regime’s grip.

“What we have to do these days is make way for a new politics that can break down the mechanism of the military dictatorship, rather than being corralled into a political arena made by the government,” he said.