Myanmar's fighter for democracy

21:14, Jun 26 2013
U WIN TIN: "I express myself very freely and democratically and not always on the party line."
U WIN TIN: "I express myself very freely and democratically and not always on the party line."

In the listless heat of Yangon, a tiny pink fan pushes stifling air around a cramped three-roomed shack.

A dividing wall separates a bedroom/study from the living room, and a rudimentary kitchen area. The washroom is outside, in an overgrown tropical garden, swarming with mosquitoes.

It might be confined, sweaty and basic. But this wooden shack - painted a cheerful lime green - represents liberty for Myanmar's longest-serving political prisoner U Win Tin.

For two decades, he languished in the notorious Insein prison, mostly in solitary confinement in a cell reserved for military dogs. Once one of Burma's most famous journalists, he was imprisoned for "subversion" - criticising the military junta which ruled Myanmar through fear from more than half a century.

The jail sentence came a year after he helped found the National League for Democracy with democratic icon Aung San Suu Kyi in the aftermath of the bloody pro-democracy protests of 1988. Since 2010 a reformist government has released both figures - she served years under house arrest - and begun to tread the path towards democracy.

Street noise, and the incessant drumming of the country's monsoon rain, almost drowns out Win Tin's gentle voice.

"I'm an old man now and my memory is fading," he says, apologising unnecessarily for his grasp of English.

He is now 84, frail, and recently discharged from hospital. His illness is a legacy of the regular beatings he received in prison - all of his lower teeth were kicked out in a particularly vicious attack.

Although his body is weak, the shack, in the garden of the home of a friend, bears witness to his formidable mind. Shelves are lined with books in both Myanmar and English - including Bill Bryson's A Short History of Everything. His desk is littered with pens and papers, which the military denied him in prison.

He writes columns for a number of weekly publications, and, according to friends, he maintains a ferocious passion for football.

A bright oil painting of Daw Suu (Suu Kyi) dominates the living room, in which also hangs a Reporters without Borders poster, marking his 75th birthday - spent behind bars.

After his release, Win Tin returned to politics and his quest for democracy for Myanmar. He is a regular adviser to the party and contributes to its weekly journal. But Suu Kyi's former deputy has wavered recently in his support for the NLD leader.

"I move in the political world as a media man," he says.

"I express myself very freely and democratically and not always on the party line."

The first criticism came after Suu Kyi recommended a Chinese-backed copper mine project go ahead, despite a brutal police crackdown on protesters.

He also disapproves of her willingness to compromise with the military.

"Sometimes, I have to express my opinions which are different from Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and I'll do it because all the time I'm a media man. I work for democracy all the time."

He explains they differ both in their backgrounds and in some of their ideals.

Win Tin was brought up in a small rural village, with a simple education. It was Suu Kyi's father, the general Aung San who, on a chance encounter, advised him to stay away from the army and instead pursue his studies.

As the daughter of the nationalist and founder of the country's modern army, Suu Kyi was raised in wealth, educated abroad and is more comfortable with army ways.

"She is always very co-operative, very kind, and very welcoming toward the military - that is our difference," he says.

"She has said without any co-operation from the military we will not be able to achieve these changes. I have said that military should always be outside the ring, not inside the democratic circle of the people.

"Military must change, not intervene in the political matters of the country."

But he adds: "She is the leader and I follow her ... there is not real conflict between us."

Every day, Win Tin pulls on a blue shirt, the colour of his former prison uniform, with a traditional Burmese lungyi (sash). It is a defiant gesture - he will wear blue until all of the estimated 200 political prisoners are released from Myanmar's jails.

It is also a wider statement about his country's transition to democracy. The military is still guaranteed a quarter of the seats in the Hluttaw [parliament] and it has an iron grip on about 70 per cent of the economy.

Myanmar's constitution also allows military rule to be restored in a state of emergency.

And crucially it prevents Suu Kyi from becoming president, even if her party is elected into government.

But Win Tin believes there is no threat that military rule will return to his country.

"People are protesting and fighting back," he says.

"The [military] get the message now, they are not accepted by the people."

* Andrea Vance is participating in the East West Center's Jefferson Fellowship with the support of the Asia New Zealand Foundation.