“I would rather die than resign.”
This was the response of President U Win Myint when two senior army officers told him to resign on health grounds on the morning of the military coup on Feb. 1 and threatened him with harm if he refused.
U Win Myint testified about the circumstances of his detention during a court hearing in Naypyitaw on Oct. 12. The regime has filed several charges against him since his detention.
“He was then told that he could be harmed if he refused, and was told to reconsider. He replied that he had faced dangers along the way and faced the risk of death,” lawyer U Khin Maung Zaw said, recounting U Win Myint’s testimony to the court.
U Win Myint also told the two military officers to act in line with the 2008 Constitution and not to stage the coup.
Though President U Win Myint, State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Naypyitaw Mayor Dr. Myo Aung were detained on the day of the military takeover on Feb. 1 and have been isolated since then, the regime has charged them with incitement over a statement condemning the coup that was issued by the National League for Democracy (NLD)’s Central Executive Committee a few days after their detention.
While U Win Myint’s testimony has won loud applause from many in Myanmar, the response to another detained senior NLD member, Yangon Region Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein, has turned out to be just the opposite. In the eyes of many, U Phyo Min Thein’s political career ended the moment he testified that he bribed Daw Aung San Suu Kyi with more than 11 kg of gold and US$600,000—a claim that angered and disappointed many in the country.
“When there are violent political storms, U Win Myint is prepared to row with his hands if there is no oar. U Phyo Min Thein belongs to those who want to hitch a lift,” said political analyst U Than Soe Naing.
A true people’s representative
U Win Myint has won four electoral races on the NLD ticket—in the general elections in 1990, 2015 and 2020, and in a by-election in 2012.
Born in Danubyu Township of Ayeyarwady Region, U Win Myint was trained as a lawyer. He has engaged in politics for more than 30 years since the pro-democracy movement in 1988, joining the NLD in its early days.
Like many other politicians of the time, U Win Myint ended up in prison after the military refused to honor the results of the 1990 general election. Back then, he was offered large sums of money and a permit to import a car, a rare luxury at the time, if he resigned from the NLD. But he chose prison over the money, and not even the lousy food and terrible conditions in prison could shake his faith.
“U Win Myint is imbued with all four attributes of a politician—bravery, honesty, industriousness and humility,” remarked U Than Soe Naing, who has known U Win Myint for two decades.
When the NLD boycotted the military-orchestrated general election in 2010, U Win Myint stood firmly with the party line. And when he was elected to Parliament alongside Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in the 2012 by-election, he was the youngest member of the NLD’s Central Executive Committee. When Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was appointed to the Committee for Rule of Law and Stability in the Lower House in the same year, U Win Myint served as the committee’s secretary, and the two worked together more closely.
“He seems to be meticulous and uncompromising, but he is very cooperative and hard-working, both in the party and the government,” said NLD lawmaker U Bo Bo Oo.
One question on voters’ minds ahead of the 2015 election was who would serve as Myanmar’s president if the NLD won, as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was constitutionally barred from taking the country’s top job. Myanmar’s military and their allied parties expressed doubts as to whether the NLD had a person capable of assuming the presidency.
In response to the criticisms, U Win Myint, speaking in a pre-election debate program organized by media outlet DVB, implied in his comments that no one could do a worse job of managing the country than the military, saying, “Every bird is as beautiful as a vulture.”
After the NLD won a majority in the 2015 poll, U Htin Kyaw became president, and U Win Myint, due to his legal knowledge, was elected Lower House Speaker. He was 66 at the time.
As Parliament Speaker, U Win Myint was not liked even by fellow NLD lawmakers, as he never hesitated to complain about any lawmaker—regardless of what party they were from—for any act deemed to be inappropriate, including reading journals during parliamentary sessions.
He often confronted ministers when they failed to give clear answers to lawmakers’ questions.
It was the first civilian government since 1962, and U Win Myint shrewdly managed the Parliament to avoid friction between military-appointed representatives and elected lawmakers, according to political analysts.
“There could have been problems, should there have been constant friction between elected lawmakers and the military appointees. The problem, I mean, is that there could have been a coup back then,” U Bo Bo Oo said.
U Win Myint did not show any bias toward his party when he was in charge of the Lower House, said Shan Nationalities League for Democracy chairman U Sai Nyunt Lwin.
“When I asked how he was doing as the Parliament Speaker, he said it was an ‘unspeakable’ trouble,” said U Sai Nyunt Lwin.
U Win Myint’s daughter married while he held the Parliament Speaker role, but he insisted that no wedding gifts would be accepted. The politician also earned plaudits for his handling of land issues for farmers.
Lowly politician to President
After two years as the Parliament Speaker, U Win Myint became the President in March 2018 after U Htin Kyaw retired on health grounds.
Anti-graft efforts were stepped up after he assumed the presidency, both in the administrative and judicial branches. One of the most significant reforms was to bring the General Administration Department, which had been overseen by the military-controlled Ministry of Home Affairs, under civilian oversight. However, the military transferred the department back to the Home Affairs Ministry after the coup.
“He has not changed his stance along the way from a [rank-and-file] politician to a president,” said U Than Soe Naing.
No fault can be found with U Win Myint throughout his political journey to the presidency, said politicians and political analysts.
“We believe he will remain firm in his stance. And we should praise him for that,” U Sai Nyunt Lwin said.
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