YANGON - Thousands of people streamed through a funeral hall here on Wednesday to pay last respects to Win Tin, one of Myanmar's most respected political activists and journalists. Self-opinionated and unbowed by authority, Win Tin was a leading figure in the country's military suppressed pro-democracy movement as a political prisoner for nearly two decades. He died earlier this week of kidney failure at the age of 85.
Released from prison in a general amnesty in 2008, Win Tin remained a thorn in the side of the country's military leaders until the end. "We should never compromise with the army," he told this writer shortly before he was hospitalized last year. "If they don't change the constitution, including [amendments] allowing
Aung San Suu Kyi to become president, we should take to the streets and protest. The people want change."
Over the past year, Win Tin had withdrawn from political activity because of ill health. He had also given up the editorship of the National League for Democracy's party weekly newspaper, D-Wave, though he continued to write fiercely independent commentaries and trenchant analysis pieces for the publication. He spoke his mind without fear or favor, even in criticizing his own political allies, including NLD leader Suu Kyi.
Before his death, Win Tin had yearned to retire from the political scene to concentrate on writing. As he was one of the three people remaining among those who founded the NLD in 1988 and amid a pivotal juncture in the country's politics, Suu Kyi, another co-founder, pressed him to stay on. Many analysts believe the NLD will sweep national elections scheduled for next year, though legal provisions in the 2008 constitution bar Suu Kyi from winning the presidency.
Certain critics have claimed the NLD is too reliant on Suu Kyi's moral authority as a global pro-democracy figure and former political prisoner. Win Tin championed the NLD's youth movement and understood that the party's political future rested with the next generation. "We need to promote the young leaders and give them responsibility," he said in an interview nearly two years ago. "What can an 80-year old man do? I'm running out of steam; we need new blood."
While Win Tin and Suu Kyi agreed on the need to groom new party leaders, the two leaders did not always see eye-to-eye on party policy. For instance, he was strongly opposed to her decision to contest by-elections held in April 2012, a reversal of the party's policy to boycott the rigged 2010 general elections that swept the military-aligned United Solidarity and Development Party to power. The NLD won 43 of the 44 seats they contested at those by-elections. Win Tin subsequently said he was certain the NLD would notch a landslide victory at the upcoming 2015 polls.
"The people want change, and they know the only way to achieve that is to vote for the NLD."
For Win Tin, activism was essential for the party's grass roots credibility and growth. Suu Kyi, who has to the surprise of many spoken out in defense of the military that previously kept her incarcerated and remained mostly reticent on the escalating persecution of the country's Muslim minority, is sometimes too conservative, Win Tin mused in certain interviews.
"She is very courageous, she is often outspoken and sometimes very dynamic, but her problem is that she is always on the side of the establishment - on the side of parliament and law and order," said Win Tin. "Of course that's because of her upbringing [as the daughter of independence hero Aung San]. But for the good for the country sometimes you need to take the activist course."
One of the last political actions Win Tin took before being hospitalized was to see the activist Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu, himself a former political prisoner. Wirathu has made global headlines for his anti-Muslim sermons and is viewed as a lightning rod for the recent violence committed against the country's minority Muslim communities.
He went to see whether he could find common ground with the monk, and whether he intended to oppose the drive underway for constitutional change that would allow Suu Kyi to become president at the next polls. "I went to see him at his request; the meeting did not take place at my request, as he told the press afterwards," Win Tin said in an interview.
He confided to this writer that after the meeting he felt used by the monk. He said to Win Tin that he wouldn't oppose Suu Kyi becoming president and then contradicted this sentiment the next day when he spoke to the press. "The NLD didn't want to meet the Sangha [Buddhist clergy], but we should, otherwise we don't know what they are thinking." The politically influential Sangha support Suu Kyi but not the NLD, he said. "We have to convince them that the NLD represents the people."
Win Tin remained an keen critic of the military's political role. "The army must go back to the barracks. That doesn't mean I want to push the military into the Bay of Bengal, or even Kandawgyi Lake," he said, referring to a prominent lake in Yangon. "But I can never fully trust the military. We need real change, not just tinkering with the constitution. We must keep up the pressure. There is a new uprising coming."
Win Tin worked for decades as a journalist and editor, writing biting critiques of military and socialist rule during former dictator Ne Win's crushing censorship and government intimidation. He was editor of the daily Hanthawathi newspaper until it was banned in 1978. He was one of the NLD's founding members during the pro-democracy movement that took to the streets in protest against military rule in 1988.
That movement was brutally crushed by the military and Win Tin was arrested in July 1989 along with hundreds of political activists. He was sentenced on trumped up charges of assisting an illegal abortion and detained in Yangon's notorious Insein prison, where he was repeatedly brutally tortured, causing him to lose many of his teeth.
That abuse, however, did not deter him from sending a report to the United Nations detailing poor prison conditions - including torture, mistreatment, and lack of adequate medical care - for which he was given a further seven-year jail sentence. He was held in solitary confinement in cramped areas of the colonial era prison that were originally designed for guard dogs and frequently denied medical treatment and adequate food and water.
Win Tin was finally released in September 2008 as part of a government general amnesty, although he maintained he was not guilty of the trumped-up charges originally brought against him. Authorities finally released him unconditionally and he soon thereafter resumed his public criticism of the military regime. Until his death, he continued to wear a blue prison shirt to show solidarity with other political prisoners still detained.
Rights groups estimate that hundreds of political prisoners are still being held despite a recent series of releases by presidential pardons. More recently, activists and journalists have been detained on national security related charges, signaling to some a reversion to the military's previous repressive ways.
The state mouthpiece New Light of Myanmar mentioned Win Tin's passing with a photograph.
Until his dying day, Win Tin remained an outspoken critic of the military's imprisonment and harassment of activists, a deeply held sentiment reflected in a poem he wrote and secretly handed to former United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Myanmar Paulo Sergio Pinheiro during a prison visit in 2003:
My time in prison
Will death be my release?
As long as democracy and human rights are not within reach,
I decline my release,
I am prepared to stay.
Larry Jagan previously covered Myanmar politics for the British Broadcasting Corporation. He is currently a freelance journalist based in Bangkok.
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