RANGOON — He is an old man with empty pockets. But Win Tin has so far spent nearly one hundred grand in just under two years.
At the grand old age of 83, after spending 20 years behind bars for his political beliefs, he has neither a retirement pension nor his own savings. He survives on free meals provided by a life-long friend who also lets him stay in his garden cabin. The Burmese veteran journalist has no living immediate family members, so he lives alone in the two-room shack.
“I have nothing, except the clothes I’m standing in,” said the former political prisoner, who still every day puts on a blue prison-issue shirt—a protest against the continued incarceration of political prisoners in Burma. “I’m not boasting,” Win Tin, one of the founding members of Burma’s main opposition party, the National League for Democracy, added cheerfully.
Contrary to his stark pennilessness, Win Tin has so far donated more than 90 million kyats (more than US$90,000) to 304 people through a foundation he founded last year to give assistance to current and former political prisoners, as well as his fellow journalists who lack the financial security to cope with their day-to-day lives.
The 21-month-old Hanthawaddy U Win Tin Foundation has given cash donations at two-month intervals, 11 times now, to 53 current prisoners of conscience plus 251 ex-political prisoners and media men.
Even though Burma already has Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) and the Former Political Prisoners Group helping political prisoners and their families, these organizations are limited in their activities. Their help mostly goes to those arrested in 1988, when the military junta put thousands of people in jail to stifle a nationwide uprising, and during the subsequent political struggle.
“I have to admit, our help reaches out to a wider range than others,” said Kyaw Aung, the secretary of Hanthawaddy U Win Tin, explaining that the foundation’s recipient lists include former political prisoners who served time in the 1960s, to people arrest during 1988, to more recent detainees and people currently serving sentences.
Burmese prisons saw a sharp increase in political prisoner numbers after the 1988 uprisings. Although an exact number is not available, many estimate that several thousand political activists were jailed in prisons across the country. Win Tin personally guessed the number at “up to ten thousand.”
Since he took office in 2011, Burmese President Thein Sein has released more than 1,300 political prisoners, and has promised that there will be no political prisoners in Burma by the end of this year.
But at least 44 are still serving sentences, and according to the Political Prisoners Review Committee, there are more than 200 political activists currently facing charges under a law limiting peaceful assembly for their involvement in protests against land confiscations.
“Once you have been a political prisoner, you are entitled to our assistance, whether you are released or under detention,” Win Tin said. “Even the family members of deceased ex-political prisoners” are included, he added.
But how can the old man who claims himself indigent afford to undertake this kind of mission?
“It’s only made possible by well-wishers,” Win Tin explained.
In fact, the bespectacled man with silvery hair is long famous for his generosity. He is never reluctant to give what he has to anyone in need. In his younger days, he was happy to pay tuition fees for students when their parents couldn’t afford their schooling. Long before AAPP, he spent half of his monthly income in the 1950s—when he worked for the Mirror newspaper—helping the families of his fellow journalists who were arrested for their political beliefs.
Seemingly, Win Tin has reaped what he has sown. As soon as he was released from prison in 2008, he found himself awash with cash donations from admirers at home and abroad.
“He started to give out anything he had, as he did before,” Kyaw Aung remembered.
At the suggestion of colleagues and friends, Win Tin decided to establish a foundation to put the donations he received to meaningful causes.
“I decided to help political prisoners with the money I got from well-wishers,” he said. “Partly because I myself used to be of one of them, too.”
Since his release, Win Tin has said publicly that the former military government is responsible for the atrocities they committed against political prisoners, and has demanded an apology from members of the regime. Furthermore, he said, they should take care of rehabilitation for former prisoners of conscience.
“Now we are doing what they are supposed to do,” he said.
Apart from donations from well-wishers, Win Tin has contributed what he has to the foundation. He also channeled to good causes all loyalties for his books—which range from his prison memoir to works of journalism to tomes on European art appreciation.
Mann Pho Aye was arrested twice and sentenced to 12 years for his political activities. When he was released in 2007, he found no one to help him. Worse, he had contracted hearing problems during his detention.
Last month, he got US$300 cash assistance from Win Tin’s foundation, along with 32 other people.
“I spent nearly US$150 on a hearing aid,” the 69-year-old told The Irrawaddy, before adding that he gave the rest to his family.
“Were it not for the U Win Tin Foundation, I wouldn’t have been able to afford to buy the device that I really need for my life.”
Even though he is open to donations from any well-wishers, Win Tin sets a limit. Last year, he was paid a visit by Zaw Zaw, a Burmese business tycoon and chairman of the Max Myanmar Group of Companies, who has been blacklisted by the US government for his close business ties to key figures in the former ruling military junta.
“He said he wanted to donate to my foundation,” the former political prisoner recalled. “I told him frankly that ‘Sorry, I don’t like you because you are a crony.’”
But, Win Tin said, he didn’t want good causes to lose out on money that could be useful, so he set up a liaison office to channel the crony’s funds. According to the foundation’s latest press release, the businessman who got rich under the junta has so far donated more than more than 90 million kyats (more than US$90,000) to ex-political prisoners and for their children’s education.
“We are on our own and have nothing to do with him,” Win Tin insisted.
Despite what his foundation has done so far, the 83-year-old founder, who was hospitalized with breathing difficulties in September, worried about the future of his charity.
“My health is not good, so I urge everyone involved to keep our mission alive,” he told The Irrawaddy. He explained that even when there are no political prisoners in Burma, there will remain the needs of families and the need for rehabilitation for former inmates.
“We have to keep going,” he said. “I’ve poured all I have into the foundation. God only knows whether it will sustain or not.”