Guest Column

Guardian Sein Win: A Personal Appreciation

By David I. Steinberg 28 October 2013

U Sein Win, who passed away on Oct. 17, was the last of his generation—the remaining English-language reporter, correspondent, editor, and publisher from the Burmese civilian era. His contribution to the dignity, spirit, and integrity of Burmese journalism has been both inspiring and important.

His legacy will long remain, and was recognized through international awards he received. He also contributed to our understanding of Burmese politics with his seminal work “The Split Story,” the study of the disintegration of the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League governing political party in 1958.

That was the year I first met U Sein Win. And since my numerous returns to Burma/Myanmar, I always went to his home and we drank tea and discussed Burmese politics, society, and the state of the Burmese state. We were joined by his daughter Daw Aye Aye Win, who also later became the correspondent of the Associated Press in Burma.

In the last few years, he was no longer able to participate in these dialogues, for first his hearing became marginal although his mind remained acute, and later he became seriously ill.

A few years ago, when Daw Aye Aye Win was interested in publishing her father’s columns that he had written in jail, I was able to retrieve copies of them from the Washington D.C. archives of the Library of Congress.  It was
a small service for an inspiring man.

U Sein Win was not only important to Burma. He was internationally respected, and when he was jailed by General Ne Win, there was an international outcry in the foreign media against such an injustice.

Yet his legacy needs internal recognition. His standards for reporting and his balance need to be the criteria for the new wave of journalists who are now coming on the scene in the wake of the elimination of most forms of censorship.

He would, if he were alive, try to instill these international standards on to the young Burmese journalists who are beginning their careers. At this critical juncture in the history of Burma, and with the present polarization of political opinion, such objectivity is sorely needed.

Now, when I return to Burma, I see the sons and daughters (and even some grandchildren) of friends and acquaintances of those whom I knew in the early civilian days. But U Sein Win was the last of those Burmese whom I knew in that long lost era. So I feel a sense both of regret for the loss of a person who was a beacon of light in his field, but also a personal loss of a friend, and through him of an epoch in Burmese history.

David I. Steinberg is Distinguished Professor of Asian Studies Emeritus, Georgetown University, and the author of “Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know” (Oxford, 2nd edition, 2013).