The Funeral of a Lion
By Aung Zaw 23 April 2014
Since I learned of his deteriorating health and his attendance at the hospital I was worried.
I knew that it would come one day, but it happened so fast. I fully understand that death doesn’t send you a notice in advance—it just walks in and takes you away. But with this giant man I could see that death found a challenge. Death wanted to take him away, but Win Tin, a man with a mission, refused.
As always, news in Burma was sketchy; even news about the health of Win Tin, the respected dissident journalist and activist.
“He is getting better,” a source told me, and I felt better. The next day, he was not receiving visitors, telling them not to bother coming. Prayers were held, Aung San Suu Kyi visited him and a rumor emerged that he would be taken overseas for treatment.
But it was too late. The passport issued to him arrived too late, and it would not be possible to take him on a flight. It was comforting to think that he could fly somewhere, like Singapore or Bangkok, where he would get better treatment. But then, I thought, the man who never wanted to burden anyone would not go anyway. Only rich generals and their cohorts fly out to get their life extended.
Since I cannot attend the funeral (I am stuck in Thailand), I will do my best to pay tribute here to this great man. We will remember his integrity. His actions matched his words. He was sincere, a trait the Burmese have always rated among the highest of qualities.
It is difficult to gather my thoughts these days—there’s an overwhelming sadness. On Tuesday, I wrote on Facebook that Win Tin was a true Nelson Mandela in Asia. He deserved to have the highest honors, even against his wishes. Why? Win Tin is a giant. Thus, he doesn’t own himself. His friends, allies, admirers and the movement own him.
But I smiled when another thought arose: In fact, Win Tin was “a criminal” in the regime’s book. He was originally arrested for giving shelter to a girl said to have received an illegal abortion. This is Burma, where there have been so many trumped-up charges against political opponents and democrats.
The prison sentence was extended as they found new charges and accused him of being “a communist.”
That communist lost most of his teeth in a beating during interrogation and was denied dentures. Win Tin, who was then already over 60, was locked up in tiny cell for years, suffering from a serious hernia and heart disease.
But he surprised his enemies by staying alive though many of his friends died there or came out broken.
I thought that death might have come to him at any time, since many of his fellow inmates and prominent intellectuals, writers and poets died in Burma’s prisons or from ill-health after been released. Win Tin himself might have thought about death, but for a few years it seemed he had been spared and allowed to carry on and fight his campaign.
In fact, of course, Win Tin was a stubborn man and a principled human being, not a criminal.
He vowed that he would not bow to thugs and so, many in the ruling circle hated him. His criticisms, even after his release in 2008, were too sharp and too direct. They didn’t like it at all.
They will not show up to the funeral. From a distance, some ministers at least have sent letters of condolence and shared their “sadness.” They know that it is still difficult for them to get close to Win Tin.
They wouldn’t dare to come anyway. They are not crowd-pleasers. In fact, they are afraid of crowds, unless those in the crowd are zombies. Even European Union-funded crowd control training given to the police will not allay their fears of a genuine large gathering, even a funeral.
It shows they don’t have the confidence or legitimacy to be in a conversation with Win Tin, even after his death! Win Tin is a giant and they are small.
What about other governments, who cannot even pretend to maintain their integrity as they fall in love with Burma’s self-styled reformist government? Will they come and shed tears at his funeral? Dead or alive, Win Tin, the voice of true Burmese aspirations, embarrasses those who have sucked up self-servingly to the regime.
These days, emotions are high, anger is rising, the sun is too hot and speeches and poetry are once again political. The lies, past and present, of brutal leaders and wolves in sheep’s clothing are once again exposed to the light.
Even on social media like Facebook, Win Tin has dominated the whole week. Propagandists and apologists had sheepishly shied away for days.
It occurred to me too that if Win Tin had died in prison or in the early days before the country was opening up, his funeral would not have been allowed. Maybe no one would have even known. It is comforting that this at least did not happen.
In an op-ed in the Burmese language, I floated the idea of a state funeral for Win Tin or the building of a museum called “Win Tin House,” where people from Burma and abroad can go to study about him, so the future generations can connect to him as well. I believe Win Tin’s death is part of our history, and our future.
In a normal democratic country, the state would honor a man of such integrity, who contributed so much to society. In Burma, it is not possible—not yet, since the country isn’t yet free.
But we know he will never die—his spirit will live with us. It will continue to haunt those officers who locked him up, and to give discomfort to those bastards who unjustly placed him in prison and tortured him. He will keep asking for a long overdue apology—not for himself but for the country.
But I am selfish. If I could negotiate with death, I would want him to live a bit longer. I would want death to let him stay one more year—until the end of 2015, when I would want to hear his remarks on the election, when we know that cowards are going to cheat. I want to see him fight and take part in the war of words. Cowards will be pleased that one loud voice will be missing at the next election.
Even just before he went into the hospital, he exchanged words with one of the senior members in the Union Solidarity Development Association, amusing us with his witty, withering words.
One hardliner once said that it was not fair to campaign using Aung San’s portrait—criticizing Win Tin’s National League for Democracy and its leader Suu Kyi. Win Tin quickly returned a fiery shot: “Well they can also campaign using Than Shwe’s photo!”
He was bold and witty and he once said that until his last breath he would try to dismantle the military dictatorship in Burma. He knew the truth of now; that changes in Burma are just repackaging. Knowing this didn’t need years of studying and writing country reports and assessments like those done by big institutions and the United Nations.
He remained unbroken and even took a sweet revenge—by coming out of jail alive and telling them they should go to hell. This is one of many reasons we love and must honor this lion.