Epiphanies from Win Tin

The late political prisoner on a lifetime of working for a free and democratic Myanmar.

Ruben Salgado/Getty Images
Ruben Salgado/Getty Images

When pro-democracy activist Win Tin was admitted to a Yangon hospital in early March, he almost certainly was wearing a blue, short-sleeved, button-down shirt. The garment was part of his uniform during his nearly 20 years as a political prisoner in Myanmar, a sentence he served for speaking out against the military regime that ruled the country for roughly five decades. When he was finally released in 2008, Win Tin refused to discard his prison uniform, pledging to wear a similar blue shirt until Myanmar’s remaining political prisoners were discharged. (Though hundreds have been released since the country began experimenting with democratic reforms, dozens still remain behind bars.) He died on April 23, at the age of 84 or 85.

Win Tin was one of Myanmar’s most prominent and outspoken political dissidents. A journalist by profession, Win Tin was already in his late 50s when he became one of the founders of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) in 1988, alongside Aung San Suu Kyi. He was imprisoned in early 1989 after the 8888 uprising, a series of popular protests against the military government. Caged and tortured for most of the next two decades, Win Tin’s health deteriorated: he lost a testicle due to an unsanitary prison operation and suffered two heart attacks. Still, he wrote when he could, even grinding up bricks with water to make ink to write poetry and political reflections on his cell wall. In 1996, the government added an additional seven years to his sentence after he smuggled a letter to the United Nations about the horrific conditions in Myanmar’s detention facilities.

The country’s longest-serving political prisoner, Win Tin was unexpectedly released in 2008, two years before Burma’s 2010 national elections began the country’s tenuous move from military governance to democratic rule. After his amnesty, Win Tin helped other formerly detained dissidents reintegrate into Burmese society and began working to transform NLD from an opposition movement to a functioning political party.

In February 2013, I spoke to Win Tin at the home of a supporter in Yangon; this interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

In July 1989, our party was almost gone because the whole leadership had gone to prison. During that time the NLD won the 1990 general election in a landslide. Yet the government removed all the parliamentary members who won. The generals made them flee the country, go to prison, or resign.

The regime sent so many political prisoners to jail, thousands of people, including myself. I spent 20 years in jail and they have never said they’re sorry. Not to me, nor to my friends or to my family.

For 20 years, the people still supported Aung San Suu Kyi and the party. Our party was still intact, so the government finally agreed to have us register as a political party in January 2012. So we participated in the 2012 elections, and we won. 

There is a conflict between the Burmese government and the armed ethnic groups. For more than 50 years, there has been civil war. There is not a single day without gunshots. 

You cannot command reconciliation. Both sides have to make amends for the bad doings of the past. People think that the past is the past– that you have to forgive or forget it — but it cannot just come from the party. You need the people’s consent.

Military leaders should atone for their past deeds. We don’t want to make them feel ashamed, but they act like they’ve done nothing at all. That’s the problem.

The ruling party cannot cheat like they did before because of international attention on Burma now. The whole world is looking at them. They could not do the same things in 2012 as they did [to manipulate] the 2010 elections.

We sent some young men to stand election in 2012. We didn’t think they would win, but we said, "Go to get some experience, and that’s all." But they won. Why? Because people supported them — not only NLD members, but also new supporters. It’s inevitable that the ruling party will lose in 2015. And I think we will win.

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