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Lessons from the life of Myanmar’s activist for democracy

By EMN Updated: Apr 29, 2014 12:52 am

[dropcap]L[/dropcap]ast week in the India’s neighbouring country Myanmar one of its most respected political activist and journalist died at the age of 85. Thousands of people streamed through a funeral hall on Wednesday April 23,2014, to pay their last respects. 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 of kidney failure, an ailing legacy of his tortured years of jailed existence in Yangon’s notorious Insein prison .Win Tin was released from prison in a general amnesty in 2008 but continued to make the country’s military leaders uncomfortable till the end. He is known to have stood steadfast to his conviction that “democracy” and not “military rule” should be the future of Myanmar. He also advocated for change in the constitution, including (amendments) to allow Aung San Suu Kyi to become president the “democratic” government . But this did not deter him from being critical of his own political allies, including National League for Democracy leader Suu Kyi. 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.
But the NLD’s over reliance on Suu Kyi has come in for criticism and while Win Tin saw the need for Suu Kyi to lead a democratic government in Myanmar he also championed the youth movement within NLD. He 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.
Win Tin always saw that activism as an essential need for the party’s grass roots credibility and growth. And according to Win Tin activism requires one to take a stand. And on this, his support for Su Kyi proved a little bit of a dilemma. While admiring her courage, outspoken nature and dynamic personality, he has been critical of her silence on the escalating persecution of the country’s Muslim minority. He held the view that she always ended up being pro establishment. The same military regime that previously kept her incarcerated .”
It is said that one of the last political actions of Win Tin before his hospitalization was to see the activist Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu, and former political prisoner. The monk is known for openly speaking against Muslims and is largely held responsible for inciting violence against the country’s minority Muslim communities. He is said to have attempted to explore for common ground with the monk, on issues such as supporting, and not opposing the current sentiment and drive for constitutional change that would allow Suu Kyi to become president at the next polls. But this meeting did not end amicably. On the contrary Win Tin is said to have come away bitterly disappointed with the double face of the monk. The monk Wirathu supposedly agreed to align his political view to include the demand for Suu Kyi to become president. But he contradicted this sentiment the next day when he spoke to the press. Following this volte face by monk Wirathu, Win Tin maintained that the NLD must now find ways to overcome its prejudice in dialoguing with the Sangha (Buddhist clergy), to comprehend their sentiments or the NLD will be in the dark. And this could go prove divisive against the forces of the junta regime since the Sangha support Suu Kyi but not the NLD. Win Tin is reported to have said that it is crucial for the Sangha to be convinced that the NLD represents the people.
In the decades he worked as a journalist and editor Win Tin was known for his sharp critiques of the military and socialist rule during the former dictator Ne Win’s intimidating and strict censorship government. 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. The 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 false charges of assisting an illegal abortion and detained in Yangon’s notorious Insein prison, where he was repeatedly brutally tortured. It was after this abuse Win Tin That sent a report to the United Nations detailing poor prison conditions – including torture, mistreatment, and lack of adequate medical care. This saw him awarded with an additional seven-year jail sentence .
His release came in September 2008 as part of a government general amnesty. Win Tin maintained that he was not guilty of the charges originally brought against him. He was released unconditionally. Even after his release he continued his public criticism of the military regime and he continued to wear a blue prison shirt to show solidarity with other political prisoners still detained, till the time of his death. Rights groups estimate that hundreds of political prisoners are still being held despite a recent series of releases by presidential pardons.
Disturbingly as the 2015 polls draw closer reports state that activists and journalists have been detained on national security related charges, signaling to some a reversion to the military’s previous repressive ways.
Until his dying day, Win Tin remained an outspoken critic of the military’s imprisonment and harassment of activists. He expressed this deeply felt sentiment 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.
The man sensed a change was in the offing in Myanmar, but for this change to be birthed the military he said must go back to the barracks not sit at the helm of government.

By EMN Updated: Apr 29, 2014 12:52:19 am