Lessons from U Win Tin, Bastion of Freedom
Today we mourn the death of U Win Tin, a man revered for his unfailing dedication to Burma’s freedom movement.
To U Win Tin, the principles of press freedom and democracy were more than mere passions; they were the blueprint for his life. U Win Tin’s unwavering commitment to justice saw him spend 7,000 nights in Rangoon’s notoriously inhospitable Insein Prison, where he endured inhumane treatment and “spent [his] time in dog cells.” U Win Tin was tortured, denied medical treatment, and kept in solitary confinement.
Such horrid conditions would be enough to break any man’s spirit. Yet U Win Tin answered in silent defiance: “Jailers refused him pen and paper, so he ground up bits of brick into a paste that [he] used to write poetry on the walls of his cell.”
As a journalist and editor, U Win Tin challenged the oppressive military junta. He did so in powerful and unequivocal terms that put Burma’s military generals on edge. The regime feared the man who fought not with guns but with his intellectual prowess. He was revered as an icon of hope, co-founding the National League for Democracy (NLD) in 1988.
The NLD subsequently dominated elections in 1990, securing 392 of the 485 available seats in the Pyithu Hluttaw (People’s Assembly) on a platform emphasizing basic civil rights for all people. After the election, the military government refused to transfer power to the rightful winners.
U Win Tin was sent to prison for his activism against the military regime. Unlike counterpart Aung San Suu Kyi, U Win Tin was not granted the relative comfort of house arrest, spending 19 years in squalid conditions, often in solitary confinement. He clandestinely documented the inhumane conditions in an 83-page diatribe entitled “The testimonials of prisoners of conscience from Insein Prison who have been unjustly imprisoned, demands and requests regarding human rights violations in Burma,” smuggled out of prison by a visiting UN Special Rapporteur.
U Win Tin paid dearly for his behind-bars advocacy. His sentence was extended and his treatment worsened. But for lifelong activist U Win Tin, this was a small price to pay, an afterthought compared with the importance of showing the world the horrors inflicted by the government.
Since his release from prison in 2008, U Win Tin always donned a blue shirt—the standard-issue garment he wore in prison. It was a nod to his friends and colleagues, political prisoners not yet released: “I made a decision to keep wearing my prison shirt because my friends were still in prison, and I feel that the Burmese people, as a whole, are still in prison.”
The Burmese people are “still in prison” because the current government is still led by the junta’s former generals. Their techniques of oppression still dominate and are enshrined in the 2008 constitution. Despite President Thein Sein’s promise in 2013 to release all political prisoners, the government continues to arrest hundreds of farmers, activists, journalists, and ethnic minorities. Cognizant of these abuses, U Win Tin stressed that the focus of Burma’s reform movement should be on creating “…new politics that can break down the mechanism of the military dictatorship, rather than being corralled into a political arena made by the government.”
U Win Tin remained highly skeptical of the current government, despite many in the international community praising change and reform. He saw a government still dominated by the military and recognized the military’s central role in the “reform” process.
U Win Tin has often been described as an uncompromising man full of courage and integrity. Above all, he was hopeful—wholeheartedly convinced that the efforts of Burma’s people would help create a truly free country.
As the movement to establish a free Burma continues, let us pay homage to a man who dedicated his life to the cause. U Win Tin was a journalist, a prisoner, a leader, and an icon. Though he is no longer with us, we hope to help create the type of country U Win Tin sought: one represented by the people, all people, unbound by authoritarian control.
Though the Burmese government holds the cards of power, and refused to apologize to U Win Tin for the two decades he spent behind bars, it never managed to break U Win Tin and his indomitable spirit:
“The dictators can only detain our bodies, not our souls.”